No. 1 rank: Fast start, with a target on your back
It’s already a phenomenal accomplishment — three state championships in two years. And now, the Minneota Viking girls are embarking on what seems like an impossible mission.
They will try to win their second straight state basketball championship after winning two straight volleyball titles. While the participants always change somewhat, there are plenty of girls on this year’s Minneota girls’ basketball squad who have shared in the glory of the three state titles. But it won’t be easy.
Minneota has already played three games and got off to a quick 3-0 start ... so the team already has an aspiration for another run at a state title.
After beating No. 5-ranked BOLD last week, BOLD Coach Brian Kingery said, “They’re ranked No. 1 in the state for a reason”, adding, “They’re very good.” But “good” isn’t good enough for Coach Chad Johnston.
He has a great one-two combination in Abby and Morgan Hennen, but he knows he won’t repeat as state champs with just two girls.
Abby Hennen knows that too. “Other girls have to step up. We need more than two people to score. When everyone scores, we’re tougher to defend,” she said.
Against BOLD, Abby scored 21 points and Morgan 18. That’s 39 out of 57 points. There will be times when that works — but it likely won’t win a state championship.
The third experienced component is Natalee Rolbiecki, the 5-10 sophomore who can drive the lane and shoot from outside. She scored 11 points in the season-opening victory over No. 4-ranked Cromwell-Wright, but she got just five against BOLD.
“Part of it is that we’re trying to get familiar with a new team,” said Coach Johnston.
The new point guard is Abby Rost, a junior who came off the bench often last year. She is learning her role, and the coach hopes her point total will increase as the season goes on.
For the first time in over 10 years, Minneota doesn’t have what you’d call, “The big horse,” in the middle. Gone are Ashlynn Muhl, Taylor Reiss and Lydia Sussner.
But the cupboard isn’t bare. Sophomore Jeren Rost, at 5-10 is as scrappy under the basket as her predecessors, landing seven to 10 rebounds per game.
But early on she had trouble scoring. “The other girls have to step up and find ways to take the shots,” said Coach Johnston. For a backup, 5-11 sophomore Kennedi Jurrens has emerged, although she also needs experience and time to become a solid asset for the Vikings.
After that, there’s a bench filled with promising talent.
One of the nice surprises so far has been the play of freshman 5-6 forward Ireland Stassen. A “whirling derbish,” she’s shown an ability to rebound, run the court well and help set up the offense.
“She can handle the physical part of the game,” said Coach Johnston, who has admired Stassen’s play so far. “She plays like Morgan Hennen,” the coach said. Also coming off the bench to help out are 5’5” sophomore guard McKenzie Tolk and 5’6” sophomore guard McKenna Yost.
Against BOLD, Tolk sank a three-pointer just before the buzzer to send the Vikings into halftime with a 28-23 lead. Yost sank a three-pointer in the Cromwell-Wright game. And both showed they’d be reliable reserves off the bench for Coach Johnston.
The Hennen girls are captains of the team and they’re showing the leadership on and off the court. Minneota rebounded very well against their first two opponents, so they’re finding ways to get the ball off the hoop — despite the lack of the “horse” in the middle.
Starting the season with two ranked opponents didn’t throw Coach Johnston a curve. “I would have been alright starting 0-1; or even 0-2. We just didn’t know what to expect. But we figured, if we lost, we’d know where we were and what we had to do,” said the coach.
Instead, they came back to beat Cromwell-Wright, then stopped BOLD cold with a press they hadn’t practiced much — before opening the Camden Conference with a win over Yellow Medicine East, 68-35. Last week against BOLD, Abby Hennen had a day most athletes dream about. Little was said about her point total, but when Coach Johnston discovered she was just seven points away from 1,000, he prepared to honor the junior.
She sank a three-pointer for exactly 1,000 points and the brief celebration was on. But that appears to be just a part of the equation. Sister Morgan is just a couple of games away from reaching the milestone herself.
Having sisters reach the 1,000-point plateau in the same season has to be a milestone not attained by most teams. While it’s been a great start and things look good for the Minneota girls to win a fourth championship in two years, well, as an old line from the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai said, “There’s always the unexpected.”
That’s what Johnston and assistant Coach Dale Kockelman are preparing for — the unexpected. Meanwhile, they’ve got the Hennen girls to lead the way.
“We got to help them control their nerves,” Abby Hennen said about the youngsters on the team. “I’m proud of them,” she said after they beat Cromwell-Wright.