Riley Nordgaard swears it hasn't sunk in yet. Her high school basketball career is over. She's done playing the game she loves in the Canby High School gym. She's not coming back next season to lead the Lancers on their quest to reach the state tournament for the first time in school history.
The finality is difficult to digest, but what Nordgaard helped the Lancers accomplish over her five years on the team is easy to see.
Before Nordgaard put on Canby uniform, no team in the program's history had ever won more than 13 games. No team had ever won a conference title. No team had ever advanced to a section championship. That all started to change when Nordgaard stepped onto the floor for the varsity team as an eighth-grader in 2007.
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Averaging more than 20 points per game in each of her four years as a high-schooler, the 5-foot-10 guard helped lift the Lancers to new heights. With two Camden Conference championships, two Section 3A finals appearances and four seasons of 19 wins or more, the Lancers have had far and away the most successful four-year stretch in the program's history.
"She changed Canby girls basketball forever," Canby head coach Kevin Hansen of Nordgaard, the 2012 Independent Player of the Year. "Her expectations of herself and her team were unmatched. I don't know if we'll ever see another player with her desire and the way that she was driven to get better every game."
Like she did throughout her high school career, Nordgaard stuffed the stat sheet during her senior season. A premier scorer who could get her points slashing to the rim, spotting up for a three-pointer or pulling up for a mid-range jumper, Nordgaard led the area in scoring at 24.0 points per game while helping a young Canby squad to a 19-7 record. She also averaged 10.5 rebounds, 5.0 steals and 3.6 assists per game.
Nordgaard is one of just two players in Canby history to score more than 1,000 career points. Natalie Giese, a 2007 graduate, finished her career with 1,248 points. Nordgaard more than doubled that, scoring 2,558 points in her five years on the varsity team. She also holds the Lancer record with 1,090 career rebounds.
Hansen and Nordgaard both point out that it takes more than one player to make a team. Though she's been a key piece to the puzzle, Nordgaard said she's had a lot of help along the way in turning Canby into one of the area's top programs.
"It definitely wasn't me by myself. It's more than one person," Nordgaard said. "I think I came in at a good time. There were a lot of good athletes and a lot of girls who worked their butt off to get here. I think I definitely had a part in the success, but it wasn't just me.
"The other thing I'd say was I've just been blessed with the opportunities I've been presented with. The coaches allowed me the opportunity to come in and be the young girl to kind of step on some people's toes. Overall, it's amazing what we've done as a program, as a team, together. I'm just thankful to be a part of it and thankful to be able to contribute."
Canby had won at least 21 games in each of its previous three seasons, but Nordgaard and Hansen both knew that it was going to take a lot of work to match or exceed that level of success this season. The Lancers had to replace All-Area honorable mention selection Caitlin Slaba along with Kiley Mercer and Becca Saltee.
Young players like forward Ricki Kallhoff and guard Morgan Merritt, both sophomores, picked up their play to try to help Nordgaard and fellow senior Casie Baer make Canby a contender in the section, but at times the team's inexperience showed. While the Lancers easily took care of the weaker teams on their schedule, they struggled down the stretch of games against top-tier teams like Minneota and MACCRAY.
To try to set up her team for one last push towards state, Nordgaard focused on trying to encourage and work with her younger teammates to prepare them for what was to come.
"We had a lot less experience on our team this year, so I needed to step up my game as a leader and as a captain and really help the girls who hadn't had any experience to warm up and experience the varsity level," Nordgaard said. "That was one of my goals right away was to come out and make the extra effort to help those girls who were a little nervous, a little scared."
Nordgaard also worked on fine-tuning her already versatile skill set. One thing the future Augustana Viking said she focused on was extending her range. The hours in the gym working on her perimeter shots paid off, as she hit 37 of her 100 three-point attempts during her senior season.
"The one thing about Riley Nordgaard, she's a very talented athlete but she's worked hard at her game every year that she's played basketball," Hansen said. "That's the reason she gets to go on and continue playing basketball is because she works so hard. She's always the first one in the gym and then she always stays an hour after practice every day to improve her game."
Matched up with MACCRAY in the semifinals of the Section 3A-North tournament, an undersized Canby squad hung tough and grabbed a 38-37 lead after Nordgaard hit a pair of three throws with 10 minute, 15 seconds left in the game. But despite 20 points and 10 rebounds from Nordgaard, Canby fell short in a 56-46 loss.
Nordgaard was subbed out in the closing moments of the game and received a standing ovation from the crowd at the R/A Facility in Marshall as she walked off the court. She said it was a tough week to get through after the loss, as she had to come to terms that she was done playing basketball for Canby and that the Lancers were never quite able to make it over the hump in their tough section and advance to the state tournament during her career.
"I'll always look back to my sophomore year when we were two points away from state and think that 'That was our year. We should have been there,'" Nordgaard said. "But to me, I guess I can't base my career off of how many state tournaments I competed in or how many section games we won. Overall, it's just that coming together as a team and competing at a high level, that's what I'll base my career off of.
"Yeah, that state tournament thing irks me a little bit, but I'll get over it. It leaves me hungry for next year, I guess."
Next year, Nordgaard will be playing in Sioux Falls, S.D., for the Augustana women's basketball team. One of the top squads in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the Vikings finished the 2011-12 season with a 24-7 record and a top-25 ranking in Division II. With what Nordgaard has done on the court and in the community over the past handful of years, Hansen said she'll have the town of Canby behind her as she continues her basketball career.
"We're excited for Riley," Hansen said. "It's time for her to move on and play college basketball and the community of Canby is excited to follow her and support her throughout her college career.
"I personally look forward to watching Riley develop as a college player and I guarantee you that she'll step in and that she'll contribute right away just with her work ethic and her approach to the sport of basketball."
And while it's hard for Nordgaard to believe her high school basketball career is over, she knows it's time to move on, too. She rewrote history in Canby and helped turn around a program. Now she's eager to build a new legacy as she steps onto the hardwood as a Viking.
"I'm just looking forward to getting back into it, not being done. I love the sport so much," Nordgaard said. "It's definitely going to be a change. It's going to be a high level of competition with everyone gunning for the same spot. I'm going to work the hardest I've ever worked.
"(Dave) Krauth is a great coach and I'm excited to play for him and with Emily Bose and all the girls there because they all have that same level of desire and passion for the game that I do."