Lakers’ growth earns Imes Coach of the Year nod

Photo courtesy of Karen Berg Lakeview girls basketball head coach Mike Imes (black) high-fives forward Aleiah Rosenau as she walks to the bench during the Lakers’ 48-46 win over the Canby Lancers in Canby on Dec. 15. Imes was named the Independent’s Coach of the Year on Thursday after Lakeview improved from a 5-21 record in the 2022-23 season to a 17-11 mark this season.

COTTONWOOD — One could be forgiven for not expecting the Lakeview girls basketball team to be among the Camden Conference’s best prior to the start of the season. The Lakers were coming off a five-win season and, with just one senior on the roster, were among the area’s less experienced teams.

It didn’t take long for the Lakers to erase any lingering doubts this year. Lakeview followed up its 5-21 finish last year with a 5-0 start this year, going on to more than triple their win total with a final record of 17-11. They also responded to last year’s 0-10 record in the Camden South with an 8-2 mark in the 2023-24 season. At the helm of the rapid turnaround was head coach Mike Imes.

When asked what was responsible for the team’s turnaround, Imes said that it was the team’s competitive spirit blossoming late in the season prior.

“We may not have had a lot of wins but you could tell as the year went on that they started gaining confidence,” Imes said, noting that the team was extremely young the last two years.

While the progress wasn’t necessarily showing up in the win-loss column yet, there was reason for encouragement. As a result, the Lakers were confident heading into this season and set some lofty goals: to reach the Camden Conference Championship, to be a top-4 seed in their subsection and to reach the subsection semifinals.

Lakeview wasn’t able to reach the Camden Conference championship, finishing behind Minneota who went a perfect 10-0 in the Camden South and finished as the subsection champion. But the Lakers did attain the other two. A year after losing 59-49 to Dawson-Boyd in the subsection play-in round as the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, Lakeview came back and defeated the Blackjacks 78-58 to in the subsection quarterfinals. This time around, the Lakers were a 4 seed and the Blackjacks a 5.

“Those are lofty goals… We talked about how you’re going to have to work because you have to earn people’s respect when you’re coming off a down season,” Imes said. “You’re going to have to earn the respect of the area and I thought we definitely did that as the season went on.”

On-court results for the Lakers started back well before their 62013 season-opening win on Nov. 28. The Lakers started practicing as a team back in June and July with the main focus being team unity, Imes said. He emphasized the importance of playing as a team and taking advantage of their size and depth. Still, the Lakers’ calling card was their frenetic press defense.

“We wanted to start playing fast with the ball, playing up-tempo in press,” Imes said. “We played in a summer league at [Yellow Medicine East] with a bunch of the other area teams and you could see by the end of the year that our kids started to kind of find their identity, like ‘Yeah we can do this. We’re going to be able to play this style of ball when we get into the regular season.'”

Among the ways the team trained in the summer was that Imes instituted a 10,000-shot club. Girls from seventh grade through their senior year each had a chart where they would keep track of how many attempts they had over the summer. Not necessarily makes, just attempts. The goal was to get the players to work on both their ball-handling and their shooting abilities, Imes said, adding that six of the team’s older girls completed the challenge. The work that they put in showed in their confidence and improved ability shooting the ball.

For many young athletes, holding themselves accountable can be a challenge over the summer when they aren’t in school every day and going directly from class to practice. That wasn’t an issue for this year’s Lakeview squad.

“They just wanted to put Lakeview back on the map as a really solid area basketball team,” Imes said. “Their goal all along was just to compete. If we all play together, if we all do our job, we’re going to be able to get those goals and this group was extremely focused and determined. One of the most cohesive groups I’ve coached, and I’ve been here for quite a few years.”

This season was Imes’ 28th overall season as a coach and his 14th season as a head coach after taking over for the varsity team in the 2009-10 season.

The Lakers went 3-6 in games that finished within 10 points either way last season. They also lost five of their last 6 games within 10 points. This year, they went 9-4 in those same situations, something Imes attributed to their competitive spirit.

“It didn’t matter what the score was, they would continue to battle and fight,” Imes said. “A lot of those games last year, they could have ended up being 10-to-20-point losses but we were in those games. Just a little lapse of concentration or something.

“[This year] you could see in their eyes how hungry they were. They were not satisfied ever during the season. They knew that they could be a pretty special team. They were very tight-knit, hardworking and they’d come to practice every day excited and wanted to work hard and battle all season long.”

Over the duration of the season, the most noticeable difference in the Lakers’ performance on the court was their ability to take care of the ball. While mistakes are inevitable with a press defense, Imes felt unforced errors were an early Achilles heel. He said that there were games in which the Lakers were turning the ball over more than 20 times without being pressed by their opponents.

“We had to learn to value the ball and that’s something we worked on as the season went on. Don’t have an empty possession, don’t just give the ball away,” Imes said. “We got a lot of steals this year, but early in the year we were literally turning the steals we got into turnovers for the other team through some foolish passes.”

He added that the team also grew as players got a better feel for their roles. As a result, they went from shooting field goal percentages in the low 20s to getting off efficient shots. After scoring 60 or more points twice in their first 20 games, they eclipsed the mark four times in their last eight games.

The Lakers’ lone senior this year was Shelby Justesen, who Imes described as having one of the best senior seasons that he’s coached.

“Especially the last month of her season. Sometimes you’ll see a senior kind of fear the end or just kind of play timid. Shelby did just the opposite. She was so focused, so confident in her game that the last four or five weeks of the season, she was definitely our go-to player,” Imes said.

Still, the Lakers are otherwise a returning team, giving Imes even more time to work with a group that improved in leaps and bounds over the course of one season.

Outside of Minneota, Imes noted, most of the area teams were in a similar boat with few seniors graduating from the team. As a result, the Lakers will need to continue to step up.

“Now it’s a challenge. Who’s the next kid that’s going to take Shelby’s spot?” Imes said. “The talk we had after the season with the group coming back was that you can’t be satisfied. Because if you look around the area… outside of Minneota I don’t think there were five seniors total in [the Camden South].”

The Lakers are already talking about what they’re going to do to train and compete this summer, Imes said, and that the players are consistent about pushing each other and holding each other accountable.

Imes wanted to credit his coaching staff, assistant coaches Sadie Stelter and Kevin Hansen, for the work they put in to get the players prepared. He also added that he’s thankful to work with an amazing group of kids and a great group of parents. Lastly, he added that he appreciates the Lakeview community continued to show up in greater numbers as the season progressed.


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