Minneota seniors Kelsey Hennen and Katelyn Kack remember what happened at last year's Class A girls' basketball state tournament all too well. It's a memory they'd like to replace.
While Vikings post player Ashlynn Muhl had an incredible performance with 33 points and 23 rebounds in Minneota's quarterfinal game against Maranatha Christian Academy, her teammates were ice cold. They made just 4 of 40 shots from the field and went 0 of 20 from three-point range. If just a few of those shots would have dropped, they could have won. Instead, they made an early exit after a 49-43 loss.
Muhl and many of the faces from last year's team are gone. The squad graduate seven seniors and had another player transfer. But the roster turnover hasn't slowed the program down at all, and with a 29-1 record and a wave of momentum, Minneota is back in the state tournament and eager for a shot at redemption.
"We just really couldn't get shots to fall," Hennen said of last year's state performance. "Everyone has bad shooting games, and it happened to be that everybody had a bad shooting game on the same day.
"Me and Katelyn talked about that the other day. We're hoping to get to the Target Center this time and hopefully go further than that. We definitely see this as an opportunity to redeem ourselves."
Minneota, which rolled through the Section 3A tournament with four straight double-digit victories, will match up with Section 6A champion Ada-Borup at 1 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The Cougars (26-2) missed out on the state tournament last season, but have gone to state five of the past seven years, winning Class A titles in 2008 and 2009.
Vikings head coach Chad Johnston, who is leading Minneota to the program's third trip to state, said he hasn't had the chance to see Ada-Borup play this season, but has heard the Cougars play a familiar brand of basketball.
"It sounds like it'll be a lot of what we like to do," he said. "A lot of full-court man-to-man pressure and man-to-man defense. They're going to look to run the floor. It sounds like you're going to see two similar teams that try to rely on speed that are going to go at each other."
Ada-Borup's top two players are forwards Taylor Kujava and Megan Kolness. Kujava, a 5-foot-8 senior, averages 18.0 points per game and has hit 52 three-pointers this season. She also leads the team in rebounding at 7.4 boards per game. In the Section 6A finals, Kujava scored 34 points in a 71-58 win over Parkers Prairie, the third-ranked team in the state. Kolness, a 5-9 junior, averages 12.3 points per game and has connected on more than half of her three-point attempts this season.
The Cougars don't have a single player on their roster over 5-9, and although Minneota doesn't have a huge edge in size, Johnston hopes standout freshman Taylor Reiss, a 5-10 center, can exploit Ada-Borup's lack of an inside presence. Reiss has emerged as a integral part of the Vikings' team this year and leads the squad in both scoring (19.3) and rebounding (10.3).
"Just because of height, I'd guess we would have an advantage in the post just because Taylor has done a great job against anyone she's seen," Johnston said. "Anyone from 6-2 to 5-11, she's seen that and she's handled that well.
"Obviously, she runs extremely well. Sometimes when you have a big girl you think you'll have an advantage on offense, but it could be your disadvantage on defense. I don't necessarily see that as a disadvantage for us because Taylor is quick enough that she would be able to guard someone who's normally a perimeter player."
Reiss was one of four young players Johnston suited up for the varsity team at state last season (along with Payton Boerboom, Emily Stienessen and Molly Hennen). They didn't see time on the court, but Johnston knew it would be a valuable experience for them to have later on.
Kelsey Hennen said nerves probably played a factor in the team's poor shooting performance last season, and she hopes that a familiarity with atmosphere surrounding the state tournament will lead to better results this season.
"Last year, none of us had been there before and it was just kind of a little shocking at first," said Hennen, who averages 9.5 points and 4.6 assists per game this season. "I think with last year, with some of the girls being on the team, even if they didn't play, they have that experience of being there and knowing what it's like."
The Vikings' past experience should help them from being overwhelmed when they enter the arena, but the Cougars are going to try to do everything they can to make Minneota feel uncomfortable on the court. Ada-Borup is second among state tournament teams in points allowed (36.6 ppg) and has held opponents to 32.4 percent shooting for the season.
But Johnston said this Minneota team isn't as prone to shooting slumps or scoreless stretches as last season's squad, largely due to its defense.
"This group is a different group. They're a different-style team," Johnston said. "Some of our strengths from last year might be our weaknesses this year, but some of our weaknesses from last year are our strengths this year.
"I think one of our strengths is our ability to play good full-court defense, which really tends to lead to some offensive output in transition. We're probably getting more looks this year within 10 feet of the basket than we ever did last year."
Minneota's senior core isn't nearly as large as last season's. Hennen and Kack are the team's lone seniors and are the only two returning Vikings players who saw action in last year's state tournament appearance.
The senior class is small, but Johnston said its leadership has been instrumental to the team's success throughout the season and will have an impact on just how far the Vikings go at state.
"You can tell this isn't their first time," Johnston said of Hennen and Kack. "They've even organized some things ahead of me. I've talked to them about getting some things together and they've told me they already have it taken care of. They've been to the state volleyball tournament three years in a row and have been good leaders for us all year long.
"I think they kind of want to redeem themselves from that performance last year. They feel like they have something to prove."