Posted By: Jason Iacovino

For Owatonna coach Josh Williams, the roster is new, the conference is new, and the schedule is new.

One side effect of last year's OHS State football championship was the basketball team started behind the 8-ball.  Several games had to be postponed to accomodate the lack of practice time and star player Ty Sullivan was lost for the year due to injury during the Prep Bowl.

The end result was a 12-15 season, the lowest win total in over a decade for the Huskies.  Now Owatonna starts fresh, with senior Dexter Leer leading a new roster that the head coach is excited about.

"This is a blue collar group with a great work ethic and attitude," Williams said. "They work as hard as any team I have had and are fun to coach."

A good work ethic is a good start, but will it be enough to win games in what suddenly is a very deep Big 9 conference?  The Austin Packers are coming off back-to-back State AAA title appearances and are top ten ranked in their class.  Rochester John Marshall has two division I recruits.  Rochester Mayo has one of the best players in the State in center Dan Jech, and Mankato West has a group of athletes that are about to play for a State football championship.

"I would love to see us be that team to make an unexpected run," Williams said. "We are picked either ninth or tenth in a 12-team league right now."

The new teams in the conference won't be pushovers, either.  Red Wing battled Austin for the Sec. 1AAA title each of the last two seasons, and Northfield battled Owatonna tough in a 69-59 loss to the Huskies last season.  However, coach Williams is not excited about losing several non-conference games with a 22-game double round robin Big 9 schedule.

"I do not like it all," Williams said.  "We need to compete against and beat metro schools in the non-conference.  With this many conference games, we do not really get that chance."

Last year Owatonna had seven non-conference games, including a great battle with Eden Prairie in that Metro v. Outstate showcase event at OHS.  This year Owatonna only gets 3 non-conference opponents, and two of those will come in consecutive nights at the Federated holiday tournament.

The Huskies open their season on Friday at Rochester Century.  Century and Owatonna have had quite a rivalry recently, including last year when the two teams met three times (Owatonna lost in double overtime at home before beating Century twice on the road, including an upset win the Section quarterfinals).

The Panthers finished two games ahead of OHS in the Big 9 standings last year, but the Huskies won when it counted, just as they did in 2011.  That was the year when Owatonna avenged a loss to Century at Target Center in the regular season by beating them, 68-42, in the Sec. 1AAAA final.  The Huskies would go on to lose to Hopkins in the State quarterfinals.

But the Vaghn Thada / Mike Sebring era is long gone.  This year's Huskies will have to beat the middle-of-the-pack teams like Century if they want to climb out of that lower third of the standings where they are projected to finish.  Coach Williams said that containing Century's back court of Jamal Brown and Sam Schwanberg will be a challenge.

Which brings us back to work ethic.  The staple of coach Williams teams, whether they reach the State tournament as they did in 2010 and 2011 or finish tied for sixth in the conference as they did last season, is team speed.  Owatonna is going to see teams that have better shooters and more athleticism a lot of nights, but those things can be countered with hustle.

Still, as was the struggle last year, every team needs a few scorers if they are going to win.  Who is going to emerge along with Leer to provide offense for Owatonna?  That's the big question--and it's this question that can make high school basketball a lot of fun.  When you have a new roster, there are always new possibilities.

Jason Iacovino can be heard Tuesdays and Fridays on KRFO-AM 1390 at 3:50 p.m. Leave a comment below and follow him on Twitter @JasonIacovino.