BEMIDJI -- Three years ago, the coaching staff in the Bemidji High School boys basketball program took a gamble.

The freshman team was playing well, and several individuals could have made the jump to junior varsity. But the coaches opted against pulling them apart.

“The coaching staff decided to keep that group together rather than moving them up to the JV. That was certainly an option for at least a couple of them,” BHS head coach Travis Peterson said. “We kept them together, and they never lost that season. … I think that was probably a good move to keep them together and see what they could do.”

Now seniors, that same core is expected to carry the Lumberjacks on the varsity level this year.

“This senior group is very competitive,” Peterson said. “They have a lot of experience playing basketball. They know how to compete, and they know how to win.”

For the first time in a generation, Bemidji will also have a section title to defend. BHS defeated Sartell-St. Stephen 67-58 in last season’s Section 8-3A Tournament championship -- its first title in 34 years. The past could come in handy in the future, as well.

“We can try to use the experience that we gained, as coaches and (players), to anticipate what it means and what it’s going to look like when it comes down to section time,” Peterson said. “But we need to look at what we did to get there. That already started. … They know that we’re preparing today for three months from now.”

The Jacks lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including Spencer Konecne, who led the team in points per game (14.3) and rebounds per game (10.6). Ryan Bieberdorf (10.6 ppg) and Kade Peterson (4.3 apg) also add to the departures, but coach Peterson believes his current contingent can make up for it.

“Some people think, ‘Gosh, you lost seven seniors? You’re not going to have experience.’ But we do,” he said. “(Our returners) have experience winning at whatever level they’ve played at. They just love the game.”

Colten Jensen returns with averages of 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in his back pocket. Quincy Wilson (7.9 ppg, 2.6 apg) and Ben Hess (team-high 40.5 shooting percentage from 3-point range) will line up with Silas Hess and Nick Snell, who also come back with full seasons under their belts.

“We’re bringing back five guys with a lot of experience at the varsity level,” Peterson said. “We lost seven seniors from last year, but we had five juniors who were in our main rotation and got a lot of playing time.”

The season begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, at Perham, and the Lumberjacks will first be at home during the Bemidji Invitational on Dec. 20.

The goal is a top-two seed in the eight-team Section 8-3A field. Paired with postseason wins, that would guarantee two playoff home games under this season’s new MSHSL formatting, leading into the section championship at a neutral site.

“That’s huge, to have home court,” Peterson said. “We feel like that’s a big advantage. We’ve had good crowd support, and we feel like that’d be a good way to treat the home crowd: to give the excitement of a section semifinal game. … Our schedule is pretty tough, but I think it gives us a chance to be one of the top couple teams if we can perform.”