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When Michael Gutierrez, Chance Fisher and their teammates walked into the first practice of the 2013-14 season for St. Croix Prep, they might have thought they were part of a movie.

Not because playing basketball for the Stillwater school is anything overly glamorous, but because something was missing on Day 1 of two-a-day practices: basketballs.

What’s been a transitional season began with tryouts that cut anyone who couldn’t run a sub-6-minute mile and an opening practice day dedicated to defense. The Lions’ season featured a new coach, a new conference and finding replacements for all the starters. Gone were players who provided 86 percent of the team’s scoring.

“We’ve been left with young players trying to figure out roles, and sometimes trying to do more than they’re capable of,” Lions coach Matt McCollister said. “We stress from the very beginning in trusting the process of winning and the process of developing a team.”

Early-season losses to Simley and Legacy Christian Academy tempered the team’s spirit and season outlook after a Class 1A charter school section title last year. This season, as an independent in Class 2A, St. Croix Prep is encountering tougher competition and a size difference that has it playing with more intensity on offense and defense.

The program’s first-ever victory over Brooklyn Center, 61-55 on the road, quickly changed the mood of the scrappy team.

“We’re seen as this upstart 1A basketball team that 2A teams don’t want to lose to,” McCollister said. “So when we have success, we’re going to have to learn how to deal with that.”

Co-captains Gutierrez, Fisher and Weston Berg have led the Lions through the growing pains of learning a new offense, along with understanding McCollister’s coaching style. The team’s 11-5 record as of Tuesday and a chance at being seeded in the top half of the Class 2A, Section 4 tournament have the players committed to a fast-paced style.

“We’ve got a few guys that just have a knack for getting to the ball,” Fisher said, “and it’s something you can’t really teach, but we’re try to keep everyone diving after loose balls and making the hustle plays.”

The biggest challenge, however, has been finding starters to replace the five seniors who graduated. Averaging 24.7 points per game, Gutierrez brings a presence on the court and in practice that has helped ease the transition.

The junior has been the perfect fit for McCollister’s system by creating scoring chances and distributing the ball. But it’s his work ethic, combined with talent and basketball IQ, that has his coach counting his blessings.

“After the seniors left last year, [Gutierrez] now feels the freedom to play the game the way he knows how,” McCollister said.

Believing in the process and growing inch-by-inch as a team has the Lions in position to make a playoffs run. Undersized and at times out-manned, they will require focus and intensity to realize their potential.

“We need to bring energy right out of the gate,” Gutierrez said.

“It starts with the captains. That’s something we need to improve if we’re going to beat the teams we should and compete in games people think we shouldn’t.”

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