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East Grand Forks Sacred Heart heads back to state tournament thanks to a gym-rat culture

In his ninth season at Sacred Heart, coach Destry Sterkel has finished with double-digit wins in every season but his first.

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Sacred Heart's Ethan Arntson (10) drives the ball to the hoop during the boys basketball portion of the Sacred Heart Christmas Tournament in East Grand Forks on Tuesday, December 27, 2022.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

EAST GRAND FORKS โ€” The East Grand Forks Sacred Heart boys basketball program is back at the Minnesota state tournament for the second year in a row.

It's the first two trips in program history. And this year, it was done after graduating the program's top two scorers of all-time.

So what's Sacred Heart's new secret sauce?

"We're not reinventing the wheel," Sacred Heart ninth-year head coach Destry Sterkel said. "The biggest thing in how we changed the culture is being available and giving opportunities to be in the gym and taking them to camps. People ask me how we turned the program around, and that's my biggest thing: Being here for them and having things open and letting them be in the gym whenever. Guys call us on a Saturday night at 8 or 9 p.m., and we have no problem opening it up for them."

The timing makes sense, too. Sterkel said these are the first groups with a full cycle of his coaching staff; kids coming to Sacred Heart basketball events as fourth-graders are now at the varsity level.

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"We've gradually been building up to this," Sterkel said. "The success breeds success. These kids were the first to come all the way through, so it's cool to see us go 57-8 the last two years, especially winning back-to-back section titles in Section 8 with such a small enrollment. It's a credit to the guys putting in the work and the coaches being available."

Sacred Heart, 27-4 this season, opens the Class A state tournament Wednesday at 3 p.m. against No. 2 seed New Life Academy (24-5) at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

The Eagles opened last year's state tournament against New Life Academy, as well, losing by six before winning the consolation championship.

Sacred Heart senior Ethan Arntson, who had 14 points against NLA last year, said there's a different vibe with the Eagles this season.

"Last year, we were really excited to get there," Arntson said. "We didn't know what to expect. We feel like we can win that first game now that we've been there before."

The Eagles will have to do it without top scorers from last season Kobe Tomkinson and Sam Gapp. The two combined for 28 points in the state opener a year ago.

But Arntson said Sacred Heart has adjusted well to that loss, sparked by the summer open gyms.

"We always have lots of open gyms in the summer and summer scrimmages," Arntson said. "That makes us a lot better. It kind of proves our chemistry, too. We had to get used to playing without (Tomkinson and Gapp) in the lineup. Those scrimmages really helped with that."

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Sterkel said he noticed immediately after this year's section championship that the Eagles had a different outlook on state.

"Even in the handshake line, receiving medals and cutting nets, I told our assistant it just feels like part of it and that we have more to do," Sterkel said. "I talked to the team in the locker room about that. They said, coach, you're spot on. That's how we feel. We were excited to be there last year and this year is more business-oriented."

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Josiah Sundby of Sacred Heart drives to the basket during the Eagles' game against New Life Academy on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at Williams Arena
Bill Johnson/Special to the Herald

The key for the Eagles will be to counter NLA's size. NLA features 6-foot-7 post Colton Hendricks and 6-8 post Erick Reader, who averages 14.9 points per game and has committed as a walk-on to the University of Minnesota.

"They're a long, athletic team," Arntson said. "Stopping the two tall people from getting easy buckets will be huge. Offensively, we need to shoot with confidence and attack downhill."

Arntson, a 6-3 senior who passed 1,000 career points late in the regular season, leads the Eagles in scoring at 19.9 points per game, while 5-5 junior guard Josiah Sundby, the program's all-time assist leader, was the conference's offensive player of the year as he averages 11.0 points and 2.9 steals per game.

Sophomore Parker Erickson, a 6-3 forward, averages 14.0 points per game, while 6-5 senior center Landon Denney averages 9.3 points and 8.7 rebounds and 6-1 senior forward Breck Bloom averages 7.6 points.

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Sacred Heart forward Parker Erickson (12) nails a fadeaway jumper in the second half of a Minnesota Section 8A boys basketball playoff game against the Kittson County Central Bearcats at Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald

Sacred Heart at-a-glance

Coach: Destry Sterkel.
Record: 27-4.
Path to state: The subsection No. 1 seed, Sacred Heart beat Badger-G-MR (64-33), Goodridge-Grygla (77-58), Warren-Alvarado-Oslo (50-48) and Fosston (58-47) to claim the back-to-back section title.
State matchup: New Life Academy, 3 p.m., Wednesday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis.
State tournament history: The Eagles advanced to their first state tournament appearance last season, finishing fifth.
Top scorers: Ethan Arntson 19.9 ppg, Parker Erickson 14.0 ppg, Josiah Sundby 11.0 ppg, Landon Denney 9.3 ppg, Breck Bloom 7.6 ppg, Greg Downs 5.3 ppg, Mike Gapp 3.0 ppg.
Coach Sterkel says: "(New Life Academy) is at its best when they're out in transition. We have to stop the transition."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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