In Justin Callahan’s first season at the helm of the Saxony Lutheran boys basketball team, the Crusaders finished 10-17 overall and advanced to the Class 3 District 2 Semifinals.
To the casual fan this might not be that impressive, but it was a vast improvement from Saxony’s 2018-19 season when the team only managed to win two games with 23 losses.
“Last year knowing they had won two games the year before — obviously very nervous,” Coach Callahan admitted. “[10-17] wasn’t a great record, but we improved by eight games. I felt pretty happy with that, so logically we want to just keep going and improve a little bit more.”
Leading the Crusaders last year was none other than 2020 graduate Andrew Schwarting, who is now playing basketball for Columbia College. Schwarting was a two-time all-district selection for Saxony as he averaged 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last year.
Despite not being able to have open gym during spring because of the coronavirus pandemic shutting school down, Callahan still feels like his players were able to make improvements over the offseason.
One of the ways the team improved was by competing in summer leagues at the Cape Girardeau SportsPlex as well as a shootout hosted at Park Hills Central. Coach Callahan said Saxony was able to play in about 15 games during the summer.
“This year I think we have a better chance at being more aggressive as far as pressing and getting after people,” Callahan said. “Even offensively I think we’ll be better at more of a up and down-type pace. We weren’t allowed to do that last year with the personnel we had. I think this year’s group as I look at them overall top to bottom are better.”
Saxony’s lone returning starter will be senior Lane Koenig (6-foot-3), who only played in 18 of the team’s 27 contests due to suffering a concussion. When he was able to suit up, Koenig averaged 4.1 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
The two other seniors on the team along with Koenig are Kevin Britton and Drew Dreyer, who both stand at 5-9. Both played in at least 15 games in rotation last year.
The majority of players on the Crusaders roster are juniors with a total of seven season that include the likes of Wade Eggemeyer (5-11), Will Eldridge (6-3), Jacob Johnson (5-9), Austin Kirn (6-2), Skylar Knight (5-11), Wilson Lodge (6-5) and Logan Pruitt (6-1).
Pruitt is another player for Saxony who saw a lot of playing time last season as he played in a total of 24 games. Throughout those contests Pruitt only averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 boards per game.
Eldridge and Johnson are also two juniors who saw playing time at the end of last season coming up from the junior varsity squad.
Lodge was not on last year’s team since he transferred from Illinois, and Lodge actually reminds Callahan of Schwarting. The difference Coach Callahan sees between the two is that Lodge stays inside the paint more, whereas Schwarting would go out to the perimeter.
“[Lodge] is about the same size, and he’s going to make a big difference for us inside,” Callahan said. “If you go to the final four, which I’ve gone and watched year after year, you just don’t see a whole lot of teams out there with a bunch of really short guys. You have to have some size.”
Callahan has decided to bring on two freshman to the varsity roster in John Hartmann (6-1) and Luke Eggemeyer (6-3). Two other underclassman Callahan that he believes have potential are sophomores Landon Ochs (6-0) and Aaron Zoellner (6-3), who was the Saxony boys soccer team’s starting goalkeeper this fall.
“We have a lot of depth and young kids that can really play and hopefully can step up,” Coach Callahan said. “Got a lot of kids who are pretty decent and there’s not a lot of difference in several of them. You want to try and get as many in as you can. Having so many players gives you the opportunity to press.”
Callahan likes to implement both man-to-man and zone-style defenses, but he wants to attack opposing offenses primarily with full-court, man pressure. He also said players can’t play a zone defense unless they know how to play man-to-man, so that’s been the focus for the Crusaders.
The reason why Coach Callahan wants his players to defend teams the entire length of the floor is so that hopefully Saxony can turn defense into offense.
“We wouldn’t be getting after it full court if I didn’t think it would get us some easy baskets — that’s the whole thing,” Callahan said. “If you’re going to play like that, you’ve got to be patient and understand, ‘OK, they may get a couple easy baskets.’ But all it takes is a steal here and a steal there. Then all the sudden you’ve got a nice run going and hopefully break [the other team] down.”