Big 9 Conference Preview: It’s a 4-way race in the 12-team circuit

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Minnesota

Posted On: 11/25/18 6:45 AM

One of the plusses of coaching in the Big 9 is you don’t have to spend a lot of time scheduling opponents. With 22 conference games already penciled in, there aren’t many openings to fill. On the flip side, it also means your team has few opportunities to see how it measures up to some of the better  3A and 4A programs in the state. Northfield went 21-1 in the conference last year and almost won a 3A state title, falling short against the champs from Robbinsdale Cooper. Can they get back to the big dance once again? They’ll have to get through the Big 9 first. Here’s how it looks. CONTENDERS Austin The Packers were 12-10 in conference play, 14-14 overall, and coach Eric Zoske’s girls did it without two players who this year might be the most important on the roster. That would be 5’8 junior guard Coley Justice and 5’7 sophomore guard Elise Hebrink, who are part of an explosive backcourt that excels in transition. Both were absent with ACL injuries last year. Austin was good, but since the return of Justice and Hebrink in summer ball they have looked much, much better. Justice is a crafty point guard who is the catalyst of the team. She has great court vision and is an excellent shooter. Although the Packers lost all-conference guard Emily Hegna to graduation, they return a strong lineup that includes 5’11 senior guard Abby Lewis, who had 67 threes last year. 5’10 senior Kiwi VanZant is one of the most athletic post players in the conference. Two youngsters to watch are the freshmen twins Hope Dudycha and Emma Dudycha. [caption id="attachment_18586" align="alignright" width="133"] Senior Ashley Gustavson of Mankato West is one of the state's top guards.[/caption] Mankato West The Scarlets went 16-6 in the Big 9, 21-9 overall and made it to the state tournament from section 2AAA. Coach Julia Battern lost 5 players to graduation, including all-conference guard Emily Veroeven, but West returns one of the best guards in the state in Ashley Gustavson. The 5’8 senior, who recently committed to D2 Wayne State, averaged nearly 10 points a game. She’s a great three-point shooter, can score at the rim and has excellent leadership skills. She’s also an all-state soccer player. Gustavson is joined in the backcourt by 5’8 junior Holly Wiste, who averaged 11 ppg. Two players to watch for this season are freshman Jaela Collins, a 5’10 forward with length and rebounding ability who has significant potential, and talented 5’9 freshman guard Lani Schoper, who is a long, athletic guard. Northfield Can coach Tony Mathison’s Raiders have another season like the last? It will not be easy given the loss of five core players, including 6’4 center Annika Hoff to Cornell and 5’8 all-everything point guard Grace Touchette, who is at Hillsdale in Michigan. They do, however, return four players with a lot of varsity experience and they’ve got size. The front court will include 6’1 senior Emma Carlson. She’s a great athlete who can play multiple positions and is a tough matchup defensively. Northfield really needs more from Carlson on offense. She’s joined by fellow senior Rachel Kelly, a physical 6’1 post who is Northfield’s best rebounder. Sophomores Annika Richardson and Lizzie Berkvam showed tremendous promise late last season and will be counted on in a big way. The fifth starting spot is wide open.  [caption id="attachment_18587" align="alignleft" width="250"] Sophomore forward Abi Deming will play a big role for Red Wing this season. (photo courtesy Red Wing Republican-Eagle)[/caption] Red Wing Red Wing finished 16-6 in the Big 9, 22-7 overall. Jesse Nelson’s Wingers lost just one player to graduation but she was a big one: all-state performer Tayzha Buck, who is now playing 30 minutes a game for Division 1 Evansville. In the post-Buck era, Red Wing’s attack will be built around three core players: Senior Lindsay Reps (she passed the 1,000 career points mark over the weekend,) junior Kyli Nelson and sophomore Abi Deming. Reps is the Wingers’ glue player, a 5’5 guard who averaged just under 14 and 5 a year ago and is near the top in every statistical category. She defends hard, knows how to finish and is the team leader. Nelson is a 5’8 guard who contributed 9 ppg. She’s a great shooter and is much improved getting to the rim. Deming is a 5’10 guard who is Red Wing’s best rebounder. Who else will be important? Watch for sophomore Sydney Rahn and 8th grader Sydnee Nelson to step up along with seniors Dani Deming and Hannah Rogers. DARK HORSES Mankato East Mankato East won only five games a year ago and were basically a two-player team. No disrespect to the rest of the lineup but then 8th-graders McKenzie Schweim and Lexi Karge were the Cougars undisputed leaders. Karge is a 6’2 forward who is long and mobile, has nice touch around the basket and is a defensive disrupter. She is a sure-fire D1 prospect who averaged 11 and 5 and is just starting to come into her own. Schweim, who averaged nearly 9 and 6, is a hard-nosed, intelligent point guard who carries the weight of the team on her shoulders. She is their best offensive player, best perimeter defender, and best distributor. Her greatest strength is her poise. Now coach Rob Stevemer has to find some complementary pieces. [caption id="attachment_18585" align="alignleft" width="250"] Austin’s Emily Hegna dribbles against Mankato East’s Mackenzie Schweim (22) and Lexi Karge. (photo courtesy Austin Daily Herald)[/caption] Owatonna The Huskies won 19 conference games last season with an experienced lineup led by Sydney Schultz (Concordia-St. Paul), who routinely scored 20+ points a night and dominated in the Big 9. She is one of nine players whose graduation has gutted Owatonna’s roster, including high-level performers Jenna Zeman and Ahnna Stelter. Eight of the top nine scorers are gone, taking 66 points per game with them! Normally this kind of devastation would definitely put a program into the rebuilding category but Owatonna will still field a team with three seniors and five juniors. They’ll be better than the teams at the bottom and may pull off an upset or two along the way. Rochester John Marshall Phil Schroeder’s John Marshall Rockets won a dozen conference games last year. They were young and inexperienced and took some lumps. This time around they’ll feature two of the most-improved seniors in Minnesota along with two of the top dozen freshmen. They have size and length and athleticism. Taylor Fautsch is a 6’1 senior forward, an underrated talent who recently committed to D2 Winona State. She can defend all five positions and is a nice three-point shooter. Her Stars Amundson teammate has also made huge strides. That would be Jesse Ruden, a 5’11 wing who averaged 15 ppg for the Rockets, mostly from beyond the arc. The two 6-foot 9th graders to watch are Lilly Meister and Katie Hurt, the 11th and 12th ranked players in the class of 2022. These two are big-time talents who, if given the opportunity, could propel the Rockets to a different level. Rochester Mayo It’s the end of an era for the Mayo Spartans, who finished .500 in the Big 9 last year, their final season under coach Rich Decker. He was at Mayo for six years and coached high school ball for 47 years in total. He sparked a resurgence in girls basketball there, winning two conference titles and two trips to state. Now in charge is Rich Carpentier whose team lost five players to graduation. Among the top returners is 6’1 sophomore center Anna Miller, who had a great summer playing up a year for North Tartan. Miller’s game has evolved greatly in recent months and she will be a handful at both ends of the floor. 5’10 senior forward Foney Marcellino is also back. She is a strong rebounder who did well in Decker’s defense-oriented approach. She’ll be needed at both ends of the floor if Mayo is to compete. REBUILDING Albert Lea The Tigers were 3-19 in the conference, 4-23 overall. They graduated 5 seniors, including all-conference guard Rachel Rehnelt. Albert Lea’s top returning senior is 5’8 guard Ashley Butt. Faribault The Falcons were a respectable 12-10 in the Big 9, 15-13 overall, but they have been gutted by graduation including the loss of all-conference performers Grace Amacher and Lauren Isaacson. 5’6 senior guard Abby Van Ryan, who was also all-Big 9, is the top returner. Rochester Century Century was 4-19 in the Big 9, 6-21 overall. The Panthers’ best player was all-conference performer Kiara Lindsey, who is at D2 Concordia-St. Paul. The cupboard isn’t completely bare at Century, but it’s also not clear who is going to rise to the occasion for coach Vinnie Mannese. Winona Winona almost won the 3A state championship in 2017; one year later they won a single game. Ouch. After graduating their best player – PG Selena Lor now of Augsburg – it’s hard to know what to expect from Tim Gleason’s Winhawks. Top returners would appear to be Kaela Appicelli, Brittin Winter and Kaelah Simmons. Top photo: Senior post Emma Carlson will be the center of attention in Northfield this winter. (Photo courtesy of the Northfield News)