Weeks into the 2018-19 school year, the Heart River boys basketball team was in search of a head coach.
After a decade with the program, Greg Pruitt left the Cougars to accept the head coaching position at Glen Ullin-Hebron. Erik Klein answered the call, taking over the team with little time to prepare after being hired in late August.
Heart River opened its season on Tuesday, Dec. 11, during the 2018 Roughrider Tournament. While every coach walking the sidelines would like to win, Klein's primary focus is to see where his team presently stands against its region foes.
"Going into the Roughrider Tournament, we don't have a lot of stuff defensively or offensively installed yet, so we are just going to come out at the Roughrider and see where we stack up," Klein said. "We're not trying to put too much expectations on ourselves, just trying to compete, get better every game and get ourselves ready for regional play."
Trailing 17-0 to Pruitt's Bearcats in the first quarter of their opener, the Cougars could only go up from there. To their credit, the team played even with Glen Ullin-Hebron the rest of the way, eventually falling 68-53. Despite a 57-46 loss to Richardton-Taylor two days later, Heart River continued to show gradual improvement as the tournament rolled along.
Additionally, Klein intends to use the early slate of games to form his team's identity, particularly on the offensive end. He would like to see his players play with pace in hopes of getting easy baskets in transition, but when the game slows down in the half court, Klein is imploring his kids to use extreme patience.
Heart River lost six seniors from a team that finished fourth in last year's Region 7 Tournament; chief among the departures was All-Region guard Caleb Chruszch. This season, the Cougars will have five seniors on the roster, but only one has had considerable varsity playing time: forward Cauy Shypkoski.
Guard Jett Mattson will be the team's ball-handler, but needs to learn the speed of the game at this level. Raw and inexperienced, center Trystan Gregory is a player that figures to help the team out in the post. The same can be said for forward Logan Quimby, a "lunch-pail" type of whom the head coach says "no one will work harder."
Other contributors include junior guard and outside shooting threat Ian Silbernagel, sophomore perimeter player Preston Walter, and the trio of inside players: sophomores Tyler Kastrow, Tanner Obrigewitch and junior Caleb Privatsky.
"Right now, I have four or five kids that can be that (breakout) player for us," Klein said. "I don't know who it's going to be yet, we're going to have to see how they react and respond in that atmosphere of a varsity game."
Junior Lane Chrusch was a potential candidate for a strong 2018-19 campaign, but after tearing up his knee during last season's regional tournament, the forward is expected to be out most of the year.
Nonetheless, Klein has faith in the players who are able to develop as the season moves forward, thanks in large part to their mindset.
"I couldn't be happier with the attitudes that we have on our gym right now," Klein remarked. "Just really positive kids, hard workers. Heart River has always had hard workers. Whenever I've watched Heart River under Coach Pruitt's reign, the kids were hard workers. That's carried over, and I'm thankful for that."