Class AAA has more than its share of perennial powers. Waseca will repeat in Section 2. Holy Angels will 3-peat in Section 3. DeLaSalle will repeat in 4. Grand Rapids will 3 in 7.
But, meanwhile, there’s some new faces and the newest of the new—Cooper, now an AAA school for the 1st time, emerges as probably the biggest threat to DeLaSalle’s favorites in the class. Northfield and Zimmerman are the other new faces in our crystal ball. But if Cooper or Holy Angels can’t stop DeLaSalle, then nobody will.
Pre-Season Top 25
1. DeLaSalle projected Section 4AAA champ (20-11 last year, lost to Winona 64-59 in state QF
2. Robbinsdale Cooper projected Section 6AAA champ (24-4, lost to Wayzata 67-44 in section SF)
3. Holy Angels projected Section 3AAA champ (27-4, lost to Winona 58-43 in state SF)
These are your contenders. Let’s see how they compare.
At the post, DeLaSalle has 5-11 senior Olivia Travis and 6-0 junior Mary Claire Francois, and at the 4 they’ve got 6-0 freshman Nora Francois, 5-11 junior Elaina Jones (transfer from Como Park) and 6-0 sophomore Nurjei Weems. Nobody is as big and as strong at De. Nobody.
Meanwhile, Cooper counters inside with 5-11 junior Alexis Nance, 5-11 freshman Kierra Wheeler, 5-8 senior Kiara Coops and 5-11 junior Arthel Massaquoi. The frontline talent is almost as good as DeLaSalle’s, but Cooper can’ match that depth. Nor can even Holy Angels, though they of course do have one of Minnesota’s top players in 6-2 junior post Destinee Oberg, and 6-1 sophomore forward Kaylee Van Der Werf has as much upside as anybody. But the Stars have nothing like De’s depth in the paint. So it’s 1) De, 2) Holy Angels, 3) Cooper.
On the wings, DeLaSalle has a solid, savvy veteran in 5-10 senior Dacoda Speidel, 5-6 junior 3-point shooter Kate Graham and more. Here, it’s Cooper with the crazy depth with guards Ja’Hyia Gaston, Sierra Lynch, Jayla Reliford and more. Holy Angels has a lot of experience in forward Riley Thalhuber, shooting guard Megan Meyer and 3-point shooter Emma Mastre. So here it’s 1) Holy Angels, 2) De, 3) Cooper.
At the all-important point guard spot, De can go a couple of ways—senior Ayanna Gardner is a rimbender, while sophomore Alexis Cochran-Starr makes rainbows. Both protect the ball. Gardner pushes it faster and harder.
Cooper has junior Aja Wheeler, who can score or dish and either way does it quick. Ty Longs and Reliford provide backup. Holy Angels is looking for a successor to Megan Thompson. Will it be Emma Henry, or her identical twin Isabelle? How about Frankie Vascallero? Alex Walker? None has proven herself at this level but the potential is there. Somewhere. So it’s 1) De, 2) Cooper, 3) Holy Angels.
Add it all up it’s 1) DeLaSalle, 2) Holy Angels, 3) Cooper. But because the 1
-spot makes everybody go, and Holy Angels has a question mark there, we’ll put Cooper at #2 and the Stars at #3 until somebody proves that to be wrong.
4. Grand Rapids projected section 7AAA champion (24-7, lost to Alexandria 46-44 in state QF)
The Thunderhawks surely played their worst game of the year in that state tournament loss to Alex. They bounced back to take DeLaSalle into OT in the 5th place game before losing 68-66. So it might seem like splitting hairs to have Grand Rapids outside the golden circle of contenders. But of course splitting hairs is what we do. And the other 3 have more younger talent with the potential for more immediate growth and more depth in 2018.
Still, Grand Rapids boasts the top point guard of the 4, if you want to open it up to a “Big 4.” She is Heaven Hamling, 5-9 senior. She’s not as quick as some, but probably has the best handles of the lot, and is surely the best scorer, both on a runner in the lane and from downtown.
Add to that a frontline of 5-11 Meara Beighley, 5-10 Maggie Miska and 5-8 Hannah DeMars. All 3 can score, Beighley pounds the boards, DeMars is a particularly versatile player who does a little bit of everything. The off-guard, Mya Roberts, is just a sophomore who will someday be a very good point guard herself.
The only problem is there’s not much depth. These 5 will get Grand Rapids a long way but a state final will be a heavy lift with a short bench.
5. Northfield projected Section 1 champion (22-7, lost to Winona 59-40 in section final)
6. Zimmerman projected Section 5 champion (24-4, lost to Willmar 62-51 in section final)
7. Waseca projected Section 2 champion (23-8, lost to Holy Angels 64-47 in state QF)
The question at this level is, Can any of these potential section champions squeak out a seed and/or a 1st round win at state. The gap between #4 and #5 looks pretty big, but Northfield in particular is not without its weapons. Senior point guard Grace Touchette is a savvy veteran who knows how to keep everybody on the same page. And, there is size including 6-3 Annika Hoff and 6-2 Annalee Olson-Sola.
Zimmerman has triple-threat guard Alyssa Daugherty, still just a junior. A section title seemed likely last year until 5-11 Naomi Hagstrom blew a knee late in the year. It’s imperative that she be back to 100 percent by playoff time.
Waseca has long-range scorers Madison Gehloff and Gus Boyer. 5-11 Brianna Highum is the only size, but the BlueJays have overcome size disadvantages time after time. Still, a win for any of these 3 in a state tournament environment against DeLaSalle, Cooper, Holy Angels or Grand Rapids feels like a stretch.
8. Simley (16-12, lost to Kennedy 52-42 in section SF)
9. Hutchinson (22-6, lost to Orono 66-62 in section final)
Here are a couple of teams that could surprise and win a section title. Simley gets Holy Angels in 3AAA, but Simley is young and improving. It’s just a question of how big a step they’re able to take this year. Sophomores T.T. Danso (5-11 power forward), Ravyn Miles 5-6 point guard) and Sydney Stensgard (5-7 shooting guard) lead the way.
While Simley’s window is opening, Hutch is an experienced team whose window could be closing after this year. Senior point guard Kenzie Rensch leads the way.
10. Mahtomedi (22-4, lost to DeLaSalle 41-39 in section SF)
11. St. Paul Como Park (20-8, lost to St. Anthony 73-61 in section SF)
Last year was probably the Zephyr’s year. Since then they’ve lost guard Marissa Gustafson to graduation while DeLaSalle is a year older and has added more talent than it has lost. But the Islanders knocked off Mahtomedi on a buzzer-beater after a truly miserable bit of officiating turned the ball over from the Zephyrs to De. Still, Mahtomedi returns one of the state’s top players in 6-3 stretch 4 Emma Grothaus. Forward Annika Sougstad is the real deal, too, but after that DeLaSalle is just bigger and stronger.
The same day and on the same court that DeLaSalle knocked off Mahtomedi last year, St. Anthony shocked Como, coming from behind to win their section semi on Como’s home court. Now, Como’s best player, power forward Elaina Jones, has jumped ship and gone to DeLaSalle. Obviously that hurts Como more than it hurts Mahtomedi, but it hurts them both. Como still has one of the state’s top 3-point shooters in Makayla Van Nett and the best 5-0 player in the state in Autumn Tucker. But that won’t be enough.
12. Willmar (20-11, lost to Orono 59-47 in state QF)
Willmar surprised Zimmerman in the Section 5AAA final with a young team, and now returns with a group of battle-tested veterans. Post Cayle Hovland and guard Hannah Johnson lead the way.
13. Chisago Lakes 12-15 (lost to Hibbing 63-51 in section QF
16. North Branch (7-20, lost to Hermantown 52-36 in section QF)
17. Hermantown (24-4, lost to Grand Rapids 65-60 OT in section final)
Carmen Backes of Chisago was our #1 rated player in the class of 2018 when she missed a big chunk of her sophomore year to a back injury and then an even bigger chunk of her junior year to a knee. If she comes back 100 percent a Ms. Basketball award is not out of the question. But a section title probably is, as they’re in Section 7AAA with #4 Grand Rapids. Still, Backes has help, as a 12-15 record without her would suggest. 5-11 forward Thea Kluge is solid all-around, and guards Sarah Bjelland, Anna Peters and Heather Elfring are all battle-tested. This team should be hungry, too, after their ambitions were thwarted by all those injuries.
North Branch returns everybody from last year’s young team, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that it only won 7 games. And, its best player, 5-10 sophomore Cianna Selbitschka, is a volleyball player 1st and a basketballer 2nd. Will the focus be there? But, guards Katherine Carlson (freshman), Haley Hadrava (sophomore) and Savannah Linkert (senior) can play, too.
Hermantown loses 6-2 post Jordyn Thomas to UMD and also loses ballhandler Jaelyn Bushey to graduation. I saw the Hawks without Bushey last year and the ballhandling was not good, so it will be key to find somebody to protect the ball and run the offense. If they can do that, 6-2 post Ellie Gamradt and 6-1 forward Taylor Vold and 6-0 off-guard Sierra Bolen can do the rest. They all score, Vold is a great passer and Bolen a sneaky rebounder.
14. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (10-17, lost to Orono 64-41 in section SF)
22. Orono (27-4, defeated Winona 65-47 for state championship)
24. Waconia (9-19, lost to Hutch 71-37 in section SF)
Benilde and Waconia are coming off terribly disappointing seasons so when we say that almost everybody is back, well, that’s maybe a double-edged sword. On the other hand, there’s something to prove here and that can be a big motivator. So, ranking them #14 and #24, respectively, means that Benilde point guard Aiana Whitfield and Waconia wing Sidney Zieske, 1st and foremost among their teammates, are going to come out strong and lead their teams back to the kind of success that they expect. If these 2 do that, there’s plenty of talent on both rosters to run with them.
15. St. Anthony (20-8, lost to DeLaSalle 84-51 in section final)
St. Anthony’s win over Como last spring was one of the biggest surprises I saw, especially as they had to come from behind in the 2nd half on their opponent’s court. 3 of the 5 players who led that comeback are gone but 2 are back. They are freshman Sam Sibbet, a small, quick, fearless, creative point guard who is destined for great things; and sophomore wing Anica Thomas, a natural scorer inside and out. The 2 of them will have to score 40 ppg between them for St. Anthony to win another 20 this year and, frankly, I don’t see them doing that. But the future looks bright at St. Anthony.
18. Worthington (16-9, lost to New Ulm 74-34 in section QF)
25. Mankato West (11-17, lost to Waseca 46-42 in section SF)
There’s a lot of talent in Section 2AAA behind Waseca and Hutch, and it’s a bit of a crap shoot to say that Worthington and Mankato West are the next best. Heck, it could be Marshall and…and, well, it could be Marshall. But Worthington has 6-footer Nyamer Diew, formerly of Marshall, in the post, and 5-11 Emma Thuringer at a forward spot. So there’s size and there’s depth. A more consistent offensive output would be nice.
West has sharpshooter Ashley Gustavson, guards Emily Veroeven and Hailey Kiewiet, and center Natalie Harmon back. But of course they only won 11 last year.
19. Kasson-Mantorville (22-7, lost to Northfield 50-44 in section SF)
The KoMets lose all-everything post Kristin Scott and more, but the cupboard is not bare. 3 juniors lead the way, starting with 6-3 forward Payton Suess. Guards Bailey Berge and Lexi Hugeback and senior guard Lexi Worden return as well.
20. Becker (11-17, lost to Zim 74-67 OT in section SF)
Becker has a deep roster ranging from big to small and young to experienced. There was only one senior on that 11-17 team a year ago, so there should be significant improvement. The top 2 returning scorers and primary causes of hope are 6-2 senior post Madi Kerzman (11 ppg-5 reb) and freshman point guard Julia Bengtson (10 ppg-6 reb-3 ast-2 stl). But there’s more including 5-11 senior power forward Haley Benda, 5-9 senior forward Renae Tripp, 5-9 junior forward Lexi Masog and 9th grade guard Courtney Nuest, all 4 of whom scored about 7 ppg last year.
21. St. Croix Lutheran (22-7, lost to Minnehaha 62-44 in Section 4AA final)
The Crusaders move up from Section 4AA, where they could never quite figure out Minnehaha, to Section 3AAA, where they bump squarely into powerful Holy Angels. They’ll make it to state yet, just not in 2018. Still, Audrey Gadison is a classic point guard, running the show with confidence, dishing, hitting the 3. But it’s not clear who else is going to score for the Crusaders.
23. Hill-Murray (12-15, lost to DeLaSalle 59-42 in section QF)
The Pioneers return 3 starters in post Grace Prokosch and guards Delaney Runyon and Vanessa Wren, all juniors. There are also 7 8th and 9th graders on the roster, led by guard Bella Hartzell.
X. Sartell-St. Stephen projected Section 8AAA champion (18-11, lost to Alexandria 44-26 in section final)
Alexandria graduated everybody and Thief River Falls moved down to Class AA. So, who’s gonna win Section 8AAA? Well, Alex could surprise. But Sartell-SS has the most talent coming back and had the 2nd best record in the section last year and took 2nd in the playoffs. Safe choice. But, seriously, Bemidji, or Fergus Falls, even Sauk Rapids could win here. But Sartell returns senior guards Addy DeMaine, Megan Sieben and Lexi Winter, who scored 37 ppg among them. But, who will score inside?
Possible State Tournament Matchups
# 1 De La Salle vs. Sartell-St. Stephen
#4 Grand Rapids vs. #5 Northfield
#2 Cooper vs. Waseca
#3 Holy Angels vs. Zimmerman
The upset special here, surprisingly, is Waseca over Cooper, and I say that because Waseca was here last year and Cooper was not and has not. Waseca would have to get hot from long-range, but you might recall that the Blue Jays made 6-of-10 in the 1st half last year against Holy Angels. If they could do that twice, well, who knows? Still, I don’t see any upsets in the 1st go-round.
In the semis, Cooper vs. Holy Angels would be a dog-fight. The Stars of course have the size, Cooper the quickness. This would be big fun. But, again, I made Cooper #2 on my list, so I gotta stick with ‘em now.
In the final, well, DLS is still just too big, too quick, too strong, too mean to lose.