MORGAN - The Cedar Mountain/Comfrey boys' basketball team hasn't had any problem piling up victories in recent years.
Since the start of the 2007-2008 season, the Cougars have compiled a record of 115-32, advancing at least as far as the Section 2A, North championship game each year.
However, each of the team's past five incarnations has failed to make one significant step - advancing to the state tournament.
Staff photo by Daniel Kerwin
The starting five for the Cedar Mountain/Comfrey boys’ basketball team are pictured during practice on Wednesday, Jan. 9, in Morgan. Pictured are (left to right) Henry Pendleton, Sam Pendleton, Zach Kerkhoff, Brady Kerkhoff and Riley Kerkhoff (Riley Kerkhoff — the team’s sixth man — filled in for usual starter Ryan Pendleton, who was absent due to illness. Ryan Pendleton is pictured below (22) during a Jan. 11 game against Minnesota Valley Lutheran).
This year's team feels that taking that next step is a very achievable goal.
"I feel like we could go deep into the playoffs this year and maybe go to state," sophomore point guard Sam Pendleton said. "State is the next step, that's the main thing we want to do this year."
Despite realizing the very real possibility of making a run toward the state tournament, head coach Brian Pendleton maintains that his team is taking the same mental approach as previous seasons, realizing that it will be no easy task to guarantee even a Tomahawk Conference title.
"I just think going into every year, we say we're going to compete for the conference, we're going to compete for the section," Brian Pendleton said. "If we do that, I think that wins will take care of themselves. As individuals, as long as they keep getting better week by week, by the end of the year I always say we'll be tough to beat."
Although each of the Cougars' lineups in recent years have included significant talent, this year's team has a unique trait that sets it apart from the rest. Among the team's starting five and the team's sixth man, you will find only two different last names - Pendleton and Kerkhoff.
Sam and Ryan Pendleton are brothers and Henry Pendleton is their cousin, while head coach Brian Pendleton is an uncle to all three. Zach, Brady and Riley Kerkhoff are all cousins. Adding to the family theme, ninth grade guard Javin Larsen is a cousin to the Pendletons.
Part of the benefit of playing amongst such familiar faces has been that the Cougars are able to feel completely at ease when they're out on the court.
"We all like to joke around and just have fun - we don't take things as serious as other teams would," Sam Pendleton said. "Sometimes when we get blocked, we'll probably just start laughing."
"We're serious, but yet we joke around," Brady Kerkhoff added. "We play as a team."
The family ties between so many of the team's players mean that they've had plenty of experience on the court together.
"We've all been playing with each other since we were pretty young," Zach Kerkhoff said. "A lot of us played AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) together and stuff."
"We all know how we all play, so that's the good thing about playing together for a long time," Sam Pendleton added.
With the way that Sam Pendleton dishes out his passes from the point guard position, having added familiarity playing together has been a necessity for the team.
"We kind of know Sam, if he's going to penetrate, you've got to be ready for the ball," Brady Kerkhoff said. "Expect the unexpected with him."
Despite the added benefits that come from playing among family members, this year's Cougars team has seen a drop off in the overall size it brings to the court after losing two key starters from last year.
In order to make up for that fact, the team has been committed to taking full advantage of its strong overall athleticism.
"We're shorter than other years, but I think we're a lot more athletic all around as a team than other years," Zach Kerkhoff said.
The team has put added emphasis on using a fast break offense this year, which has helped it produce an 8-2 record so far this season.
"Last year was more so get the ball up the court, this year it's just push it - as soon as you get the board, push it down the court," Brady Kerkhoff said. "We haven't been really doing that in the past."
Above all else, Coach Pendleton feels that what has made his team successful so far this season is the never-say-die attitude that his players bring into each game.
"The big thing I like about our team is how we compete every night," Coach Pendleton said. "We've been down some games by as much as 20, 22 points and we've come back and won those games. They've never given up and they've always just kept competing."
That attitude will be particularly valuable once the playoffs begin. The Cougars made it to the Section 2A title game in 2009, but in four of the past five years the team lost in the Section 2A, North final.
"We've lost at Gustavus three years in a row, so getting past that is pretty much what we want to do this year," Sam Pendleton said. "The toughest game in playoffs will probably be the Gustavus game."
With still more than half of the regular season yet to be played, the Cougars aren't prepared to overlook any opponent, though. Their date with destiny is bound to come in the playoffs, but until then they're just taking the season game by game.
"We know that there are a lot of games to be played," Coach Pendleton said. "I'm happy with where we're at now, but we certainly know that we need to get better. All the other teams are getting better as we speak - so we're sitting in a good spot right now, but we know that there's a lot of games to be won and we've got to keep improving."