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Hopkins High boys basketball guard Tristan Lee drives to the basket during a game last season. The Royals won the Section 6AAAA title last year, but graduated four of five starters.

Head coach Kenny Novak Jr. finds himself in a new position this year. Instead of being one of the favorites in the Lake Conference, Novak’s Royals are short on experience.

6-foot-6 senior forward Xavier White is the only returning starter from a Royal team that went 10-2 in the Lake and finished second to 12-0 Eden Prairie. The Royals went on to beat Wayzata in the semifinals and Cooper in the finals of the Section 6AAAA Tournament. Then, because of COVID-19, the State Class AAAA Tournament was canceled.

While the downside this year is lack of experience, the Royals’ upside is that they have a lot of height.

In addition to the 6-6 White, the Royals’ top group includes 6-8 senior center Jack Hernandez, 6-7 junior center Elvis Nnaji, 6-6 junior forward Andrew Chisley, 6-4 senior guard Jaelen Treml and 6-2 senior guard Tristan Lee.

The Royals lost the Lake Conference’s second leading scorer, 6-5 guard Kerwin Walton, to graduation. He averaged 25 points per game as a senior and is now in the starting lineup for the University of North Carolina.

Two guards with only minimal experience in the Hopkins program, 5-11 junior Tyrell Sappington and 6-foot senior Brenlynd Jarrett, are eager to earn more playing time.

“Practice is going OK,” Novak said. “We have good length, but we’ll still be more of a perimeter team, more of a spread team. We have to learn to move the ball to get it going. Generally, I like to take things slower early in the season, but this year we have fewer games [18 in the regular season, instead of the usual 26]. So we are trying to go quicker.”

For one of the few times in his coaching career, Novak didn’t have to cut players. “Our numbers are way down,” he said. “Some guys didn’t come out because of COVID.”

Usually, the Royals would have a non-conference opener before jumping into Lake Conference play, but this year is different. Novak’s team will face Eden Prairie, the defending Lake champion, in the season opener. Eden Prairie enters the opener on a 28-game winning streak, but has only one starter returning from last season’s undefeated team.

The Hopkins-Eden Prairie game will tip off at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, at the Eden Prairie.

Looking at the landscape in the Lake Conference, Novak said, “Wayzata has everyone back and will probably be ranked No. 1 in the state. We get them the second game of the season [at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Hopkins Lindbergh Center].”

All of the Lake Conference teams will play a double round-robin schedule, and that leaves room for only six non-conference games. The other change this year is that players will be required to wear face masks both on the bench and during the games.

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