SUN PRAIRIE — When last season drew to a close, the senior-laden Sun Prairie team — led by the dynamic duo of senior Marlon Ruffin and heavily recruited sophomore forward Jalen Johnson — celebrated a Big Eight Conference championship and a run to its first WIAA Division 1 state tournament appearance.
But Brookfield East center Patrick Cartier’s basket just before time expired in overtime dramatically ended Sun Prairie’s season in a state semifinal.
Then, in July, after a strong AAU season, 6-foot-8 Jalen Johnson, now a junior, announced on Twitter that he and his younger brother Kobe (a sophomore) planned to transfer to Glendale Nicolet. That sent reverberations through the Cardinals’ program, the Big Eight and the state, where a debate developed about what the WIAA would do about such transfers.
So, what will life be like without all those departed seniors and the Johnson brothers? The Cardinals, who started four seniors and Jalen Johnson most of last season, will start finding out tonight when they open the new season at Madison Memorial.
Sun Prairie coach Jeff Boos acknowledged his team will be challenged early due to inexperience and injuries. But he remained upbeat.
“We are optimistic,” said Boos, in his 24th year as coach at Sun Prairie. “We are excited about our kids. We like what we see. Are we where we want to be? No. We don’t have that kind of experience coming back. If we are able to get that experience on the floor, we will move forward and we will be OK. They will play hard and they will compete.”
Asked about the Johnsons’ departure, Boos politely declined to comment. Sun Prairie junior guard Colin Schaefer heard rumors Jalen Johnson might leave and said the fact Johnson did transfer caused some anger and resulted in a healthy chip on the players’ shoulders.
“It gives other players a chance to show what they’ve got and to get in the mix,” said Schaefer, adding the team is nevertheless seeking another league crown and extended postseason run. “Obviously, he’s a good player. But we still can compete. We are a really deep team and we’ve shown that in years past.”
Senior guard Rajai Williams said he’s heard comments that it will be difficult for Sun Prairie to remain at the top of the conference after winning outright or sharing the past three titles. But he said the returning players know what it takes to succeed.
“I feel like everybody is down on us because we lost a couple players, but we have to get back … and show them we are supposed to be back on top,” Williams said. “They don’t think we are going to do too well, but that’s them.”
Brock Voigt, a 6-5 senior whose twin Alex Voigt also is on the roster, said: “The goals don’t change even though we have a different team. We are striving to get better and to get back to the Kohl Center.”
The Cardinals will start the season short-handed due to injuries — including to senior Cooper Nelson (ankle) and Schaefer (knee) — and other availability issues. Nelson was injured during football season; Schaefer came back late in football season after injuring his knee during summer basketball, but he said he still is working his way back from that injury.
Boos believes the team will mature and grow as the season goes on.
“There will be a lot of new faces that haven’t been underneath the lights,” Boos said. “It will take a little while to jell just that piece of it. It’s not that we don’t have some kids who haven’t been there before. But they haven’t played in the magnitude of games they are in now.”
The Cardinals likely will play a faster style. Nelson, Schaefer, Williams and junior forward Delaware Hale are players Boos anticipates counting on as the season progresses. Last year, due to injuries to other players, Williams made eight starts and Schaefer and Hale each made one.
“The biggest thing is playing with a chip on our shoulder, coming into every game and playing the same way whether it’s a big game or a small game — having that chip and that fire the whole season,” Schaefer said.
That attitude will be important for Sun Prairie, its preseason status significantly changed in the Big Eight, where Madison Memorial, Madison La Follette and Madison East are likely preseason favorites.
“We are probably not the favorite in the league anymore,” Boos said. “So be it. … We will see where we start and where we finish. We live by the motto, ‘It’s not where you are, it’s where you are going.’”