Kent Dernbach is upfront and honest with the recruits he’s bringing into the UW-La Crosse men’s basketball program. Things aren’t going to be easy, and freshmen rarely are immediate impact players in the rugged WIAC.
It might not sound like the best sales pitch to give to a 17- or 18-year-old, but given the results of Dernbach’s first recruiting class as the Eagles full-time coach, it’s working.
The Eagles are adding eight new players — five incoming freshmen, three transfers — to the roster when the team convenes for its first practice on Oct. 15.
“It starts with the first conversations we have,” Dernbach said in his office Wednesday. “When we talk to young men and their families, we let them know that nothing’s going to be guaranteed. I want to tell them they’ll have great success and guarantee a great career and win championships. That’s our goal, but no coach can guarantee that.
“They’re going to struggle. There are going to more valleys than there are peaks early on.”
Dernbach presents that reality to his recruits with the carrot at the end that things eventually will click, and with the talent that he and the Eagles staff amassed in this class, that “aha” moment may come sooner than for the average recruit.
The class is highlighted by two local products — 6-foot-5 Black River Falls forward Ethan Anderson and 6-foot-8 Tomah forward Josh Dahlke — who appear to have the chance to get on the floor fastest given the needs of the Eagles. Anderson followed up a strong junior year for the Tigers with a Coulee Conference championship as a senior to go along with his 27.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Dahlke (16.7 ppg) provides immediate help in the low post for La Crosse, and Dernbach says he’s intrigued by Dahlke’s high-level passing and ability to step away from the basket and shoot.
“(Dahlke)’s somebody we targeted early on. He’s somebody who could very easily average 20, 25 points a game, but he’s unselfish. At his size, those guys are very difficult to get at a non-scholarship level, even in our league.”
Marshfield’s 6-foot-4 guard/forward Seth Anderson (22 ppg, 7 rpg) brings a versatile wing body for Dernbach to work with. Seth Anderson was the runner-up behind Stevens Point’s Drew Blair for Wisconsin Valley Conference player of the year, and showed good shooting touch in scoring 21 points in a loss to Central in the Division 2 sectional final.
Craig Steele, a 6-4 wing from Portage made a big leap from his junior season to his senior, averaging 19 points. Wrightstown’s Luke Haese (6-5) rounds out the incoming freshmen after a senior year in which he averaged 17.9 points and shot 44.3 percent from the 3-point line.
The three transfers include Zac Haese, Luke’s older brother, from Lindenwood; 6-7 forward Dylan Bunders from St. Norbert; and 5-11 guard Sam Burkart from UW-Milwaukee.
The eight newcomers give Dernbach flexibility position-wise, which is key to the Eagles motion offense. Players need to be able to handle the ball and shoot to make the offense its most effective.
“Offensively, we can make a lot of different things work. But it’s, ‘Who can you defend on the other side?’” Dernbach said.
Dernbach — who became La Crosse’s interim coach last fall — was recruiting during the season from the disadvantage of not knowing whether he would be the coach at UW-L next year. However, he said his assistant coaches, especially Adam Hjelter and Kenny Finco, were able build relationships and help land a majority of their top targets.
“We don’t have a ‘Plan B’ or a ‘Plan C’ when it comes to recruiting. We have a group of guys we’re really going to go after, and then if we don’t get them, it’s not fair to bring in somebody we’re not 100 percent invested in,” Dernbach said.
“We hit on most of the guys we were really targeting. Even if you would take our circumstances out … these are the guys that we would’ve targeted.”
Only one senior graduated from the Eagles team that went 13-13 last season, and came one shot short of upsetting national runner-up UW-Oshkosh in the WIAC tournament.
Dernbach said the team will likely have a larger roster this season as the program will lose five seniors in 2019, but there will be competition for the last few spots when camp begins.
“We’re open and honest with incoming guys and the guys on our roster with, ‘This is what we have. This is what we’re trying to become,’” Dernbach said. “If everybody’s on the same page of what the goal is and where they stand, you can be really excited about the competition it creates within a program.”