As was the case for all fall and winter sports, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily affected the 2020-21 Sun Prairie boys basketball season. The Cardinals didn’t play a single Big Eight Conference game.
Instead, Sun Prairie crafted together an entirely out-of-conference schedule, playing all nine games on the road. The Cardinals went 4-5 against some of the state’s best teams, earning a No. 3 seed in the state tournament. They won one regional game before getting bounced by DeForest.
This year, the Cardinals will hope for a little more stability. COVID-19 is still prevalent, but restrictions have eased to the point that Sun Prairie should expect to return to a full Big Eight slate of games and is slated to play its first home game since February of 2020.
“I’m glad we’re back and able to get in the gym and play at home,” Sun Prairie head coach Jeff Boos said. “It’s different, it’ll be good.”
Boos, who was inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Hall of Fame this summer, enters his 26th season at the helm of the Cardinals with some production to replace.
Last year’s second-leading scorer, Drew Houtakker, is off to Edgewood College. The 6’5” forward averaged 12.2 points per game for the Cardinals last season. Leaving with Houtakker is Connor Carpenter. The 6’1” guard was the team’s third-leading scorer at an average of 10.9.
It wasn’t just seniors that left the program, either. Guard Cole Hansen got significant minutes for Sun Prairie as a freshman. He played in all of the Cardinals’ games and averaged 7 points per game, doing much of his damage from behind the 3-point arc. He opted to transfer to Wauwatosa West over the summer.
Luckily, two of the Cardinals’ most potent weapons are back. Headlining the returning production is senior guard Ben Olson. The lefty wing brings a strength to his game few others in the area could match. He drives hard to the hoop and is rarely knocked off course. He led the Cardinals in scoring last season with an average of 18.6 points per game. His production earned him honorable mention All-State recognition as a junior. Olson figures to be the headliner for Sun Prairie again.
Another lefty joining Olson on the hardwood this winter is senior forward Addison Ostrenga. Also one of the state’s best football and baseball players, Ostrenga does it all. He’s committed to Iowa to play football but will lace ‘em up one more time for the Cardinals.
As a junior, Ostrenga averaged 7.5 points per game. He’s another strong, athletic player that, when paired with Olson, should make opposing defenses miserable.
“Ben and Addison bring leadership,” Boos said. “They’ve both played a lot and bring a lot of toughness with them. They’ve been here, they’ve been under the lights. We need that. That’s where you start building your team.”
Boos got his first look at building this year’s squad Monday, Nov. 22 as Sun Prairie hosted a 6-team scrimmage. Five quality opponents, Cuba City, DeForest, La Crosse Central, Oconomowoc, and Stevens Point, made the trip out to participate. The teams alternated playing 22-minutes games.
This learning opportunity was limited for Sun Prairie as both Olson and Ostrenga did not participate. Olson is nursing an ankle injury while Ostrenga is recovering from a grueling football season that just ended on Friday in the state championship. Neither are seriously injured and are expected to be ready to go by the season’s start.
Instead, Boos used the opportunity to gauge what the rest of his team would look like this season. Things weren’t exactly impressive. The youthful Cardinals looked overmatched and lost against the full-strength units of some of the state’s best teams, which is OK.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Boos said of getting a team ready. “With everything going on, getting a team ready to go is a lot. Plus, we have guys coming back from football that we have to get connected. It’ll take a little while. Now, we need to make some major steps. It’s a work in progress. That’s the best way to put it. I need to re-assess what we have and what we’ll be.”
The Cardinals couldn’t keep up in the fast-break game. It was obvious that these sophomores and juniors weren’t used to varsity speed. That is, except for junior guard Darius Chestnut.
The 6’3” guard was impressive in his first taste of varsity experience. He has an undeniable nose for the ball, sniffing out opportunities for steals and blocks often. He can play out-of-control at times, but his superior speed and athleticism help him recover. He should play significant varsity minutes for the Cardinals this season.
Beyond Chestnut, there is much left to be desired from what Sun Prairie showed on Monday. Having a Hall of Fame head coach helps that, though. Boos understands that this is a process, one that he trusts his players and coaching staff will adhere to and prosper from.
“It’s not where we are now, it’s where we are in February,” Boos said. “Hopefully, we can continue to grow it and be optimistic about what we’re doing and go from there. We’ll figure out where to put our guys and how to make them comfortable and productive on the floor.”
That journey of progression for Sun Prairie will begin Thursday, Dec. 2 as the Cardinals will travel to Verona for an early Big Eight showdown with the Wildcats.