When they step onto the court at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota on Thursday, it will be the first time any member of the Minneota Vikings has ever played in a Minnesota state tournament basketball game. This group, however, is quite used to being on the big stage.
Many of the team members, including four of the team's five starters, were a part of the past two Class A state volleyball tournaments played at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Vikings finished as the runner-up in 2009 and were the consolation champions last fall.
Some players making their first trip to the state basketball tournament this week may have to take time to settle in on the court, and a slow start could mean an early exit when playing one of the high-caliber teams in the loaded field. With the past experience most of his players gained in volleyball, Minneota head coach Chad Johnston hopes his team will be ready when its moment comes.
"I think the experience will help in that it won't be a complete shock for them to be in that atmosphere," said Johnston, who led Minneota to its only other state tournament appearance in 2005. "It'll be a little different for them than in volleyball, but like they say, 'Success breeds success.'
"This is a group of winners. They've played a lot of games and some good teams and they just find a way to win."
Minneota's veterans will clash with a young group of players in Thursday's 1 p.m. quarterfinal game against Maranatha Christian Academy (19-9), which is located in Brooklyn Park. The Mustangs, who made their only other state appearance last season, have relied on multiple underclassmen this season, with just one senior and three juniors on their roster.
While Vikings senior post player Ashlynn Muhl feels the experience the Minneota players have gained at the state volleyball tournament will help them this week, she knows the team can't rely on that to advance.
"Every team up there wants to take first place and will do anything they can do get it," said Muhl, who leads the Vikings in scoring (17.8 ppg) and rebounding (12.8 rpg). "We can say we'll know what to do and what to expect, but we still have to play our game and take what comes at us and hope that will get us through to Saturday."
The fourth-ranked Vikings have been able to handle just about everything that's come at them so far. The Camden Conference and Section 3A champions lost just one game all season, which was to a Marshall team that qualified for the Class AAA state tournament. Most of Minneota's games haven't even been close, with an average margin of victory of 21.7 ppg.
Senior Taya Kockelman joins Muhl as a double-digit scorer for Minneota (11.2 ppg), while fellow starters Amber Grengs, Kelsey Hennen and Katelyn Kack all average around six points per game for a balanced scoring attack.
While Minneota is tied for the fewest losses in Class A, the Mustangs have more losses than any other team in the tournament. But of their nine losses, seven came against teams from a higher class - including four losses to Class AAAA schools.
The only Class A team Maranatha Academy lost to this season was New Life Academy, which defeated the Mustangs twice. Maranatha Academy got its revenge when the stakes were the highest, topping the Eagles 44-37 in last week's Section 4A championship game.
Junior Alexis Long, a 5-foot-6 guard, leads the Mustangs in scoring with 13.4 ppg. An undersized squad that gets most of its points from driving to the basket, Maranatha Academy's only player listed over 5-9 is sophomore Onye Osemenam. The 6-2 center leads the team with 233 rebounds this season.
With Muhl, Kockelman and Grengs, the Vikings have three starters standing 5-10 or taller, with two players of similar height available on the bench.
Johnston said Maranatha Academy relies a lot on its pressure defense, which his team will be working on handling in the days leading up to the game.
"We're going into this expecting to see a lot of defensive pressure and teams pressuring the ball," Johnston said. "We haven't seen much of the type of pressure we'll likely see from Maranatha.
"We feel like we should have a height advantage against them, and if we can handle their pressure we'll hope to be able to utilize that."
The second-highest ranked team in the field, Minneota will be considered one of the favorites to win the Class A title. The team that wins between Minneota and Maranatha Academy will move on to the semifinals to play the winner between Hancock (26-2) and Goodhue (27-4), which is the top-ranked team in Class A.
Minneota has won 18 straight games leading up to the tournament and the Vikings aren't planning on having that streak snapped in the Twin Cities.
"I think we're going into it with confidence and with expectations. We're not just going be happy to be there," Johnston said.
"It's the state tournament and it will be a tough road. The players should expect some adversity. But we're going there to try to make a statement."
The Vikings were the favorites last fall when they went into the state volleyball tournament with a No. 1 ranking. They failed to live up to that ranking and were upset in a five-set match in the semifinals.
Muhl, Kockelman and the rest of Minneota's senior class have racked up the accomplishments in both volleyball and basketball over the years, but the one thing that has eluded them is a state title.
For Muhl, there would be nothing better than hoisting the championship trophy with her teammates on Saturday on the Target Center floor.
"It'd be amazing. The seven us want to go home with a blue ribbon and we just hope we can get it," she said.