Girls Basketball: NLS WildCats and BBE Jaguars prepare for state

Patrick Bernadeau, West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.
·7 min read

Mar. 30—The time is now for a pair of area girls basketball teams.

New London-Spicer and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa each earned trips to state in 2020. After playing much of the 2021 season ranked in the top five of their respective class, the two teams have climbed their way back to the state tournament.

Now what stands in their way of further advancing is a pair of talented teams.

The top-ranked and unbeaten Wildcats hit the floor first when they take on Lake City in a Class AA quarterfinal at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday from Chanhassen High School. NLS is the top seed in the south bracket while the Tigers are the fourth seed.

"This is a tough team," Lake City head coach Clay Olstad said of the Wildcats. "At 21-0, they are one of the best teams in the state. You can expect anything less when you are in the state tournament; all the teams are good there."

Later in the day, BBE takes on West Central Area in a Class A quarterfinal at 7 p.m. from Perham High School. The Jaguars are the No. 1 seed in the North bracket. The Knights are the fourth seed.

"There's not many holes in (BBE's) game," Knights head coach Eric Schoenbauer said.

Knights riding on revenge

This is the first time WCA has qualified for state in girls basketball. Last season, the Knights fell to Henning in the Section 6A title game. This season, as dubbed by Alexandria Echo Press sports reporter Jared Rubado, the team from Barrett has been on a revenge tour.

In the postseason, WCA avenged three of its five losses in 2021.

The Knights defeated Parkers Prairie 67-51 on March 19 after suffering a close loss to the Panthers in mid-February. Next, with some late-game dramatics, WCA (17-5) advanced to the section championship with a 50-49 win over Hancock on March 23. The previously unbeaten Owls were ranked sixth and swept a pair of regular-season games against the Knights.

Lastly, WCA got its payback against Henning with a 64-53 win on Thursday to become section champions. The Hornets were the top-seed in Section 6A and were second in the final Class A rankings released by Minnesota Basketball News. '

"It's been an intense ride," Schoenbauer said. "There's been moments of panic by the players, panic by the coaches, and then complete jubilation in the way things have gone. Like any game, there's ups and there's downs; there's runs both ways. Somehow this team has found the ability to make the run when they matter and hold on in the end."

The player spearheading this WCA train is Lexi Bright.

Snubbed for All-State recognition, the junior guard has used that slight fuel during the playoffs.

She became the program's all-time leader in career points with an 18-point effort during the team's 76-37 victory over Brandon-Evansville on March 17. Then in the Knights' win against Hancock, Bright collected a steal and put up the game-winner layup in the final minute of regulation.

The junior continued her stellar postseason play with a team-best 21 points in the win against Henning. She currently has 1,789 career points.

"Obviously, she can shoot the rock. She can get to the rim, she has a pull-up game and all of that," Schoenbauer said. "But she can find her scoring without excluding others. Some people are ball-dominant players, she can find avenues to score without being ball dominant, although she can be when she needs to be.

"She got shorted on being an All-State ballot member. We put her up looking at her stats and everything she's done and meant to the team. The year before, there was a player that we beat at Parkers Prairie in Faith Alberts; as a junior she was an honorable mention and this year she was All-State. (Bright) was out to prove that I deserve it more than that person and maybe a few more."

Schoenbauer has a 10-12 player rotation. Standing at 6-foot-2, sophomore forward Claire Stark poured in 19 points during the win against the Hornets. Macy Grosz has paced the team in scoring in two of its four playoff wins. She is one of three eighth-graders who see regular minutes. Mya Foslien and Addison Staples are the other two.

Tigers present tall task

The Knights have won 12 of their last 13 games after starting the season 5-4. Interestingly enough, their first loss came to the hands of New London-Spicer.

Bright finished with a game-best 28 points, but the Wildcats rallied from an 11-point deficit with 10 minutes to go to come away with a 57-53 win on Jan. 21.

While NLS was able to handle a premier scorer on that night, the team will be forced to contain four offensive threats against Lake City.

The Tigers feature four 1,000-point scorers in senior forward Grace Bany, junior forward Mya Shones, along with junior guards Lilly Meincke and Natalie Bremer. Shones and Bremer reached the milestone last season while Bany and Meincke did so this season.

"If I had to use one word to describe coaching those four players, it would be fun," Olstad said. "They are really fun people to be around and fun players to coach; very coachable players."

Bany and Shones provide Lake City (19-3) an element most Wildcat opponents don't have: size. Bany is listed at 6-foot-2 while Shones is 6-1 and will be matched up against NLS seniors Erin Knisley (6-2) and Ava Kraemer (6-0). Olstad hopes to win those matchups with his players utilizing their speed, quickness, and athleticism.

"That's going to be a huge matchup and a huge part of the game Tuesday," Olstad said. "It sure should be fun."

The Tigers know drives and points in the paint will be at a premiere facing the Wildcats size and vaunted 2-3 zone. That's where their backcourt may come into play.

Each standing at 5-11, Meincke and Bremer each can get their shot off against most defenders and can score from an area of the floor.

They also frequently have the ball in their hands since they are responsible for bringing it up the floor. Bremer is Lake City's leading scorer at 22 points per game and has paced the team in scoring during its four postseason victories.

Meincke drilled a pair game-winning free throws with 44 seconds remaining in the Tigers' 37-35 win over ninth-ranked Goodhue in the Section 1AA title game on Thursday. Lake City won each of its previous three playoff games by double figures.

Finishing the season ranked seventh, Lake City scores 69.6 points per game, good for fourth in Class AA.

The program is making its first state appearance since 1984. By comparison, NLS and head coach Mike Dreier are making their 19th state appearance since 1985.

"(Monday) at practice, you can just feel the energy at excitement," Olstad said. "They've been enjoying it every step of the way just like we've preached. We told them to enjoy the moment, because in the blink of an eye, it'll be over within a week no matter what."

Class A quarterfinals

Tuesday's Games

At Pequot Lakes High School

3-N Cass Lake-Bena (17-5) vs. 2-N Mountain Iron-Buhl (18-4), 4:30 p.m.

At Mankato East High School

4-S Houston (18-0), vs. 1-S Minneota (22-0), 5 p.m.

At Perham High School

4-N West Central Area (17-5) vs. 1-N Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (20-1), 7 p.m.

Wednesday's Games

At Mankato East High School

3-S Sleepy Eye St. Mary's (22-0) vs. 2-S Mayer Lutheran (19-2), 5 p.m.

Class AA quarterfinals

Tuesday's Games

At Chanhassen High School

3-S Glencoe-Silver Lake (18-4) vs. 2-S Minnehaha Academy (17-3), 4 p.m.

At St. Cloud Tech High School

3-N Duluth Marshall (18-2), vs. 2-N Providence Academy (20-1), 5 p.m.

At Chanhassen High School

4-S Lake City (19-3) vs. 1-S New London-Spicer (21-0), 6:30 p.m.

At Pequot Lakes High School

4-N Pelican Rapids (20-1) vs. 1-N Albany (21-1), 7:30 p.m.