FOSSTON -- The naysayers have been proven wrong.
Fosston is heading to the Minnesota Class A boys basketball tournament for the second consecutive season. The Greyhounds entered last season with high expectations and wound up getting to the state tournament for the first time since 1921. But this season's Section 8A repeat championship wasn't as anticipated.
"This is kind of unexpected in a lot of people's eyes," Fosston coach Ben Hemberger said. "People thought we'd probably be down after losing so many seniors. And we coaches really didn't know what to expect at the start of the year.
"But as the season progressed, we started to think that we could do something. But it took a little while for us coaches to see that."
The lower expectations were probably understandable. Nine seniors were on last season's team. That group included three starters as well as the top three reserves.
The one group that didn't share that skepticism going into the season was the athletes.
In a statewide preseason basketball publication, Fosston senior Kyle Arneson was asked how the Greyhounds would do.
"Kyle's answer was, 'It's our section until somebody takes it from us,'" Hemberger said. "After I saw that, I told him that was sort of blunt. And he said, 'Well, that's what I believe.'
"When the leader of the team, the guy who others gravitate to, believes that, it doesn't take long for the other kids to believe, too. Kyle's a leader. So is Taylor Carlson."
The Fosston athletes knew expectations for the team were down. They developed an us-against-the-world attitude.
"We knew the guys coming in would step in, that we would be competitive," Arneson said. "Everyone thought we were going to be down. That gave us motivation, something to prove. I have confidence in all the guys and in what we can do."
While graduation hit Fosston hard, there were two solid building blocks in Arneson and Carlson.
Arneson was the second-leading scorer (12.5 ppg) last season, while Carlson was a defensive stopper. And both have increased their production, with Arneson averaging 15.5 points and Carlson 10.6 points a game.
"Kyle gives us a scorer, a good ballhandler and a playmaker (averaging four assists a game)," Hemberger said. "He makes things go. He can create shots for himself and others. He's the guy you want having the ball. And Taylor is one of the best, most versatile, defenders in the section. He has the toughest defensive assignments every game.
"They were good kids to build around. And we knew we had some talented kids coming up."
Seth Carlin (13 ppg), Zach Sather (8.6 ppg) and Bryant Schmidt (5.1 ppg) round out the starting lineup. Hemberger said that, had Carlin not missed most of last season due to a knee injury, he also would have seen extensive playing time on that team.
It is a team that isn't reliant on one or two big scorers, which was more the case last season.
"I think we're a better shooting team this year," Carlson said. "We all play a role in getting the ball in the hoop. Defenses can't key on one player."
Hemberger said the game that showed him the team's potential was a 56-54 win on Jan. 5 against Bagley, a team that had reached the Section 8-2A semifinals last season.
"They had a whole pile of talented kids back," Hemberger said. "We were able to control tempo and handle their offense. I think that opened my eyes, that we had something here.
"We had unknowns at a few spots at the start of the season. But each day, each practice and game, these kids got a little better. They've played with high intensity almost every game."
Fosston took a 21-6 record last season to the state tournament, where it lost in the quarterfinal round. The Greyhounds have bettered that record, with a 24-4 record.
"We knew we'd be competitive, that we'd be over .500 and competitive in every game," Hemberger said. "But if somebody had told me at the beginning of the year that we'd be 24-4, I wouldn't have believed them. It's been a pleasant surprise.
"There's something about this group -- they keep beating expectations."
Or the players keep meeting their own expectations. Neither Arneson nor Carlson considers this trip to state a surprise. Instead, it is the product of the Greyhounds' hard work.
And there is an extra satisfaction in proving others wrong.
"It definitely was a we'll-show-you attitude," Taylor said. "When people tell us we can't do something, we've worked even harder. Who doesn't want to prove somebody wrong about stuff like that? And it feels good to accomplish it."
GREG DeVILLERS is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. The Herald and the Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Company.