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Seniors on the Grand Rapids High School boys basketball team are pictured. From left are Dawson Persons, Jacob Johnson, Chase Hopperton, John Sutherland, Easton Fothergill, and David Ellies.

GRAND RAPIDS — It was a rough season for the Grand Rapids High School boys basketball team in 2018-19, but the prospects look much better for this year’s version of the Thunderhawks because of the returning players.

Leading the way is center John Sutherland who led the state of Minnesota Class AAA players in scoring, averaging more than 27 points per game. He also averaged in double figures in rebounds and he will be a load to stop on the court this season.

In addition, Grand Rapids returns other players that will provide a nice core around Sutherland.

Dan Elhard is beginning his 18th season as head coach of the Grand Rapids High School boys basketball team which finished with a 9-17 record last season. He said two starters off the team were lost to graduation.

“I think we are pretty experienced this year because we had a lot of sophomores that we plugged in last year that got some valuable playing time,” Elhard said. “We feel those juniors will be able to step in and be pretty experienced. We have a core of seniors who have been through the battles too so actually I think we have quite a bit of experience.”

Elhard said Sutherland has been a starter since he was a sophomore and that he obviously was a key contributor to last year’s team.

“John led the state in Class AAA basketball in scoring last year and he averaged 12.5 rebounds per game so he did a lot of work,” Elhard said.

Other players who Elhard expects to see plenty of time on the court are senior guard David Ellies, junior guard Trent Johnson, senior forward Easton Fothergill, junior guard Derek Erdman, junior guard Brady Bachmann, and senior guard Dawson Persons – who will serve as captain along with Sutherland. Others who will battle for playing time will be junior forward Nate Roberts, senior guard Jacob Johnson, sophomore guard Austin Hanson, junior center Ty Pederson, senior forward Chase Hopperton, junior forward Isaiah Edel, and junior guard Trey Winkels.

“We need more balance this year so it is important that we have good team play and we are going to have to shoot the ball well to take some of that pressure away from (Sutherland) and spread the floor hopefully,” said Elhard. “I think we have the guys that can run a little bit so hopefully we won’t let defenses just set up and surround Johnny too much.”

The 3-point shot is becoming a more significant weapon in the past few years than it ever has before at all levels of basketball. Elhard said he also is stressing good 3-point shooting when the shot is open.

“Shooting 3-pointers is part of our practice plan just about every day,” Elhard explained. “Maybe we are slow learners or something but it seemed like it took coaches quite a while to really focus on the 3-ball and now I think every program really stresses it a lot.

“It stretches the floor out and it probably provides some open lanes for drives and it maybe eliminates some of the contact in the game as well.”

In Section 7AAA this season, Elhard feels that Hibbing has to be considered the early-season favorite.

“Hibbing has like six of their top seven from last year back and they are very talented and can put up a lot of points on you,” Elhard said. “Hermantown is another team that can score as they have four starters back from last year. They also have a dynamic point guard that is going to play at UMD next year.

“Princeton won the section last year but they lost a lot of players but they bring back a few and there is always that advantage of being the defending champ. It is a little swagger that you have.

“I would like to think that we are going to be in the mix as well. I think we can compete with just about anybody.”

Assisting Elhard in the coaching department this season will be Scott Bachmann as assistant varsity coach, Chad Persons, junior varsity coach, Derek Bauer, ninth grade coach, and Jake Skelly who will be helping at all levels.

“These guys seem to love playing basketball with each other and they seem to love playing hard,” the coach explained. “They also love having fun so I think it is a good combination. And, so far I have been impressed with their attitude.”

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