University of Minnesota pledge Pharrel Payne will be the center of attention in boys basketball this winter. Photo by John Molene
Park boys basketball poised for breakout year

Park had a bit of a roller- coaster, up-and-down boys basketball season in 2020-21, finishing 1110 overall and 9-9 in the Suburban East Conference.

The Wolfpack scored an early-season 68-59 win at home over eventual conference co-champion and No. 7 Woodbury Royals, but then lost 60-48 at Woodbury later in the season. In one back-to-back stretch in mid-March Park lost to ninth-ranked Cretin-Derham Hall by 27, then swamped Irondale by 38 points two nights later.

But Park played well in section play knocking off Eagan 65-52 and Eastview 55-52 before bowing to host Rosemount 66-41 in the Section 3AAAA final. It was Park’s first appearance in the section championship game in more than 20 years.

The Wolfpack’s goals are higher this time around.

“To make it to state,” said all-star center/power forward Pharrel Payne. A 6-9, 230-pound senior this winter, Payne committed to play basketball at the University of Minnesota next season after averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game last season.

“We need to put in the work, keep our head down,” said Payne.

Payne’s basketball skills were especially noted during summer play as he starred on the Minnesota Select AAU team. His play earned him attention from multiple Division I programs including Loyola Chicago, Drake, Appalachian State, UC-Santa Barbara and Saint Louis, before he eventually signed with the Gophers.

Payne played at 230 last season. This year he’s up to 245 and looks bigger and stronger than a year ago. This will be his third year on the Park varsity.

“Obviously he’s grown a lot,” said Park head coach Mike Weah. “He definitely got a lot bigger and stronger, more athletic as a player. We understand that the main focus for other teams will be on him this year so we need other guys to step up.”

Returning for the Wolfpack are four other experienced seniors: sharp-shooting 6-4 forward Evan Bearth (10.4 ppg), 6-6 forward Jamari Walker (7.5 ppg), 6-0 guards Brady Perryman (5.2 ppg), a top defender, point guard Brayden Fick (2.9 ppg) and Jack Blumberg (5.6 ppg).

“We need to work hard every day, practice hard,” said Walker. “We’ve got to keep our mental game as strong as possible for the games.”

Park will be without the services of veteran guards Jayden Lane and Nico Henderson and center Jakob Leonard this winter, but everyone else in the varsity lineup returns. Lane’s point guard play will be especially tough to replace. Park had 10 juniors and four sophomores on the varsity last winter.

“If we can put all that together with our older guys and our seniors, put together that chemistry and that leadership and hopefully holding each other accountable we think we should have a pretty decent year,” Weah said.

“Our expectations for this year are just to keep growing as a program,” said Weah. “This year we obviously have some pretty good players, some pretty good guys coming back from last year’s team. They went all the way to a section championship last year. We would love to get back to that point but we understand that this year is going to be harder than it’s ever been.”

There will be few layups on the schedule this season, Weah noted.

“There’s some really good teams,” Weah said. “I feel like every single game that we have is going to be a tough game. Our conference is as tough as it’s ever been. Every team has at least one college prospect. It’s really deep this year.”

Park hosts St. Paul Central to open the season Friday, Dec. 3, starting at 3 p.m.

December 1, 2021