If there was ever a year when a team from Greater Minnesota seemed poised to win a Class AAA title (for the first time since Becker in 2007), last year was it. We started the year with Hutchinson, Alexandria and Winona rated #1-2-3. And, Winona got to the finals, but they were easily defeated there by Orono, who earlier had beaten #1 Hutch in the Section 6AAA final. Orono was the 10th straight metro winner in Class AAA and the 17th in 21 years of 4-class ball.
Not only that but the Class AAA champion has been a metro area private school 7 times in the past 12 years.
All of this is prelude to saying that 2018 will be business as usual in Class AAA. We have 3-time champion DeLaSalle rated #1 to open the 2018 season, and 2016 champ Holy Angels at #2. The big hopes for public schools ride on #3 Grand Rapids and #4 Zimmerman. Here’s our pre-pre-season top 25.
1. DeLaSalle 20-11 last year, rated #10 in 2017, favored in Section 4AAA
2. Holy Angels 27-4, #4, favored in Section 3AA
The incredibly young DeLaSalle Islanders started 7-8, but roared to a 13-3 finish. They were just a #4 seed in Section 4AAA but finished as consolation champions at state. The Islanders are the 2011-2012-2013 state champs. Holy Angels won the AAA title in 2016, then took 3rd place this past year. Here are the matchups for next y
• In the post, Holy Angels has Destinee Oberg, 6-2 sophomore (junior-to-be), who is rated as the #1 player in her age group. DeLaSalle has about 20 fouls to give in there with Olivia Travis, Mary Claire Francois, Nora Francois and Maya Agunbiade. Nora will be just a 9th grader next year
• At the 4 spot, the Stars have the biggest star in 6-1 silky smooth Kayla Van Der Werf, while De counters with some of the above plus 6-0 Nurjei Weems.
• At the 3, Holy Angels has Riley Thalhuber, a feisty, does-the-little-things type of player. DeLaSalle has Dacoda Speidel, who spent all of 2017 getting her game back after a serious injury.
• At the 2, Holy Angels has Megan Meyer, star of the 2016 state tournament who kind of disappeared in 2017, plus a deep bench. De has 5-5 Alexis Cochrane-Starr and 5-6 Kate Graham, a pair of 3-point bombers.
• Finally, at the all-important 1, DeLaSalle has Ayanna Gardner, a senior-to-be who gets to the rim whenever she wants. Opponents know where she’s going and can’t stop her. The Stars lose their point guard, Megan Thompson. One from among Frankie Vascellaro, Alex Walker, and Emma and Isabelle Henry will succeed her, the others will backup at both the 1 and the 2.
All of the players mentioned above for both teams will average out to grade 10.75, meaning sophomore year. So, these are 2 very young teams, but 1 of them is likely to win another state title. I can’t help but think that DeLaSalle has a slight edge with their tremendous depth.
3. Robbinsdale Cooper, 24-4, #14 (in Class AAAA), favorite in Section 6AAA
Instant power. Cooper drops down from Class AAA with a deep, deep team led by star guards Aja Wheeler and Ja’Hyia Gaston. They might have given state champ Orono a run for it in Section 6AAA this past year. Next year they should win the section. In addition to Wheeler and Gaston, they’ve got front liners Alexis Nance, Kiara Coops and youngster Kierra Wheeler.
4. Grand Rapids, 24-7, #9, favored in Section 7AAA
5. Zimmerman, 24-4, #15, favored in Section 5AAA
These 2 primarily carry the hopes of Greater MN. Wait, Zimmerman is part of the metro, you say? Well, then you’ve never been to Zimmerman. But, technically, you might be right, but I have a hunch that people live in Zim specifically because they don’t want to live in the metro—like, in Elk River. But, who knows? In any event, here are the matchups.
• Bigs—Zim lost to Willmar in the Section 5AAA final in part because of the loss of their biggest player, 5-10 forward Naomi Hagstrom. She’ll be a senior next year, and she’ll be coming off a knee injury. Grand Rapids has 6-0 junior-to-be Meara Beighley (pronounced Beachley), who is well on her way to becoming a beast in the lane, plus Maggie Miska, 5-10, who can also step outside and shoot the mid-range jumper
• Wings—Zim has Ilea May and Mikayla Pool and Demi Bond all coming back. May is just 5-7 and is among the state’s leading rebounders. What up wit dat? None is a big scorer but they do all the little stuff. The ThunderHawks have scorer Hannah DeMars.
• Point Guard—Grand Rapids has one of the state’s best and well-established 1s in Heaven Hamling, daughter of coach Kris. Zim has an emerging force in Alyssa Daugherty, who scored 20 ppg at the 2-spot last year. Zim will miss this year’s senior 1 Danielle Williams, for sure, but Daugherty has 1 skills and will be more than just fine.
Add it all up and Grand Rapids has a little more experience (2 state tournaments) , so we’ll put them at #3.
6. Northfield, 22-7, #5, favorite in Section 1AAA
The section runners-up bring back point guard Grace Touchette, and lots of size including 6-4 Annika Hoff, 6-2 Rachel Kelly and 6-2 Annalee Olson-Sola.
7. St. Paul Como, 20-8, #11
8. Mahtomedi, 22-4, #7
2 teams that have in common getting bounced out of Section 4AAA in a wild semi-final doubleheader. And, neither has the horses to handle DeLaSalle again next year, but they’re top 10 caliber teams. Como has 2 of the state’s top 3-point shooters in Mikayla Van Nett and Autumn Tucker, and Tucker is perhaps the state’s best sub-5-foot-tall player. (I asked coach Alexis Gray-Lawson if Tucker made her listen height of 5-feet in shoes or in stockings. Gray-Lawson smiled and said, “I’m going with shoes.”)
Mahtomedi has 6-3 Emma Grothaus and do-it-all wing Annika Sougstad, among others.
9. Simley, 16-12, #19
Posted a winning record last year with 3 freshman starters—power forward Tiwah Danso, and guards Ravyn Miles and Sydney Stensgard. Each scored 9-10 ppg this past year and is just going to get better.
10. Waseca, 23-8, #12, favorite in Section 2AAA
11. Hutchinson, 22-6, #2
It’s tempting to jump on Hutchinson, newly moved from Section 6AAA to Section 2AAA, as the favorite in 2AAA next year. But Waseca has almost everybody back from a state tournament team. They are small but Madison Gehloff and Gus Boyer and friends can shoot it from downtown
Hutch was rated #1 in the state until they lost to Orono in the final. They bring back Kenzie Rensch and Gabby Hahn and more.
12. Hermantown, 22-3, #14
Hermantown couldn’t get past Grand Rapids this year, and they’ll have the same problem next year. Still, they may have the state’s best front lines in 6-2 Ellie Gamradt, a great jump shooter; 6-2 Taylor Vold, who plays the “point forward:” and a mobile nightmare matchup 6-1 Sierra Bolen. The lack of a solid point guard was a problem this past year, too, so we’ll look for some progress there.
13. Willmar, 20-11, #17
Willmar returns 3 starters from its surprise state tournament entry—power forward Cayle Hovland, and guards Jordyn Swoboda and Hannah Johnson. Johnson is a 5-10 junior-to-be. The others will be seniors. It’s doubtful they’ll surprise Zim again, at least in 2018.
14. Kasson-Mantorville, 22-7, #8
I was surprising to be placing the KoMets this high with the loss of Kristin Scott, but here they are. Partly, that’s in recognition of the returning talent—6-3 forward Peyton Suess and guards Bailey Berge and Lexie Worden. Partly, it’s a recognition of how little talent remains in Class AAA right at the present time. A number of perennial powers, from Alexandria to Winona, will be down next year, and there just aren’t a lot of teams that have been building up towards replacing them. Thus, the next 3 picks.
15. Becker, 11-17, unranked
16. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 10-17, unranked
Typically, teams that are ready to jump into the top 20 will have shown more over the previous season than what these 2 showed, and more than a few more team listed below have showed. But, there just isn’t anybody who is better prepared for the leap. I don’t know if that suggests a weak AAA field for 2018. It might.
But, Becker continues to bounce back from the loss of Kenzie Kramer to transfer. They bring back center Madi Kerzman and guards Renae Tripp and Julia Bengtson, the latter being one of the state’s top 8th graders.
Benilde brings back guards Aiana Whitfield and Cheyenne Carter and post Olivia Williams, all juniors-to-be.
17. Chisago Lakes, 12-15 unranked
21. North Branch, 7-20, unranked
In the case of Chisago Lakes, the problem was in large part the knee injury to Carmen Backes. Otherwise they were on pace to win close to 20 games. Along with Backes, they will have forward Thea Kluge back. North Branch will be a very deep team though it’s 7-20 record perhaps suggests otherwise. Cianna Selbitschka is a keeper, and probably guard Katherine Carlson. Otherwise, they’ve got to a lot of girls to get sorted out.
18. St. Croix Lutheran, 22-7, #17 in Class AA
From the frying pan into the fire. St. Croix Lutheran has had a tough time competing with Minnehaha in Section 4AA, losing in the section final the past 4 years, I believe. Now they jump up to Class AAA and they’ll draw Holy Angels, among others, in the sections next year. Still, they have point guard Audrey Gadison and post Stephanie Miller, so there’s hope.
19. Mankato West, 11-17, unranked
20. Red Wing, 17-9, unranked
Returning to the Big 9, these 2 teams will not challenge Northfield in the conference. That will be left to AAAA’s like Rochester JM and Mayo and Owatonna. But West could be a factor in Section 2AAA behind guards Emily Veroeven and Ashley Gustavson. Red Wing brings back guards Tayzha Buck and Lindsey Reps.
22. St. Anthony, 20-8, #13
Loses a lot of talent but returns 2 terrific sophomores-to-be in wing Anica Thomas and point guard Sam Sibbet.
23. Alexandria, 26-6, #6, favorite in Section 8AAA
This is a tough pick. Alex loses enough talent that they should be rebuilding, and of course they are. But, can they win while rebuilding? In Section 8AAA? Yes, they can. They’ll struggle at times and finish the regular season around .500. But there’s nobody who is going to be a whole lot better and, so, at playoff time, coach Wendy Kohler will coax a couple games out of her team that will be just good enough to get back to state.
P.S. Is Kaye Paschke, who made the game winner at state, that good? I hope so. She is a very exciting player.
24. Waconia, 9-19, unranked
25. Orono, 27-4, #1
Cooper is very suddenly the new 800-pound gorilla in Section 6AAA. Who is #2? Waconia has a lot of kids coming back, but 1 or 2 of them need to take that big step forward into the front ranks. Most likely are guard Sidney Zieske and 6-2 post Courtney Freeburg. Orono returns point guard Maddie Loder but not much else.
Possible State Tournament Matchups
#1 DeLaSalle vs. Alexandria
#4 Grand Rapids vs. #5 Zimmerman
#2 Holy Angels vs. Northfield
#3 Cooper vs. Waseca