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Defending Class AA champion Pipestone Area looks for elusive Southwest Conference title

WORTHINGTON -- With five of its seven teams over .500 last season, the Southwest Conference will once again be very competitive on the girls' basketball court.

Last season, Marshall won the conference title with a spotless 12-0 record, but Pipestone Area and Worthington both qualified for the state tournament.

PA returns as the Class AA state champions, while Worthington qualified for the Class AAA state tournament before bowing out to eventual champion, Becker High School.

Pipestone Area Arrows

Even with a 25-4 record and a state title to build on, the Arrows have many question marks this season.

"We were fortunate enough to win state last year, so there are high expectations for the kids and the program even though we did lose some valuable players," Pipestone Area head coach Jay Johnson said.

With a bench that went as many as nine deep last season, the cupboards are not bare for the Arrows, however.

Leading the Arrows will be a quartet of seniors. Nichole Merrill and Faith Tinklenberg return at the guard spot, while Chelsey Evans and Kayla Rowden return in the post area.

All played quality minutes on last year's state championship team, and will lead this year's squad.

"The first half of the season is going to be really important to develop and understand our roles," Johnson said. "Once again, hopefully, we'll play our best basketball at the end of the season -- like we have the last several years. "

Bailey Bouman and Megan VanderPoel return at a forward position and are likely be in the starting lineup to begin the year.

"Last year, we ran about a nine-man rotation, which was a strength of our program," Johnson said. "We had good depth, and that, once again, will be key this year."

Sophomores Taylor Swenson and Brooke Woelber and junior Meghan Visker might see some time for the Arrows.

Another strength for PA this season will be its versatility. While the starting lineup will be more physical, Johnson has the capability of going to a smaller, quicker lineup.

"We're going to give teams different looks," Johnson said. "We'll be more physical at first, but then we'll be quicker off the bench."

Brooke Woelber, Meghan Visker, Taylor Swenson and Bree Woelber look to get some minutes off the bench.

Even with some holes to fill, and high expectations, Johnson is still optimistic about the season.

"I'm very excited about the season," Johnson said. "It's a different team, but we have a lot of experience coming back, and we have a lot of talent with these kids."

The Arrows open their season Tuesday against Hills-Beaver Creek.

Luverne Cardinals

For head coach Jason Phelps and the Luverne Cardinals, replacing four starters from a team that won 17 games last season will be a challenge.

"We're going to have to find some scoring," Phelps said. "The next thing is that we have to defend and rebound."

The Cardinals graduated players that scored more than 45 points per game from a year ago, and added 23 rebounds a contest.

This season, Luverne returns a lineup averaging 10.4 points a game and seven rebounds.

"We should have more balance this year," Phelps said. "Compared to last year when we relied on one or two kids mostly."

The top returning player is Lexi Jo Heitkamp. She leads the returners in points (5.5) and rebounds (3.3). However, Heitkamp will be sidelined with a stress fracture in her lower leg for the first two months of the season.

That will leave fellow seniors Christy Van Dyke (2.3 ppg), Amy Herman (1.3 ppg), Allison Henke (1 ppg), and Tara Snyder (1.4 ppg) to pick up the scoring.

Phelps will also look for juniors Kayla Raddle and Diana Hanson to contribute quality minutes. Sophomores Callie Sawtelle and Liberty Robinson should also see some floor time this season.

Even without much scoring production returning, Phelps looks to utilize the team's speed.

"We would like to try and get up and down the court, and put pressure on teams," Phelps said. "We have four or five kids that ran in the state track meet last year, and four or five that ran in cross country this fall, so we should be able to get up and down the court."

While the first few games may be rough for the Cardinals, Phelps hopes to be playing the best basketball by the end of the season.

"We would like to try and get better every day and see improvement," Phelps said. "That first four or five games is going to be a learning experience for us."

Luverne opens its season Tuesday against Southwest Star Concept.

Jackson County Central Huskies

After a quick start to last year's season, the JCC Huskies look to build from a 4-8 conference record a year ago.

JCC started 7-1 last season, and finished with a 15-12 record overall.

The Huskies will look for solid post play and improved guard play this season.

"We're looking to improve our guard play and get people to realize they can dribble the ball too," JCC head coach Stephanie Bot said. "We hope to put more points on the board and get strong leadership."

JCC will look to the guard play of Megan Bezdicek, Ashley Kruse and Anna Meneely.

In the post, Brooke Burmeister and Kate Rentschler will be the main threat.

"The post will still be good, but we need to improve on outside shooters," Bot said. "Our shooting was good, but it can be better."

One new wrinkle will be the ability to play a more up-tempo game this season.

"We're hoping to change a few things this year," Bot said. "Hopefully get out and run. We're hoping that we're deep enough and in good enough shape to run a little, because that's what the rest of the conference does."

JCC opens its season Friday at Sleepy Eye St. Mary's.

Windom Eagles

Coming off a season in which the Eagles did not win a conference game, Windom is looking to improve on a 3-21 season a year ago.

However, with Windom's success in the state volleyball tournament, head coach Sheryl Hanefeld hopes the momentum carries over into the basketball season.

"It's a positive," Hanefeld said. "It definitely can help us. They bring a positive attitude, and that's coming off of their state volleyball success. Hopefully the wind can stay in our sails for a while."

The team will have seven players from Windom's volleyball runner-up team on the squad.

Casey Christensen returns, but will be out until Christmas with an injury.

Megan Ysker, MaKenzie Lovell and Megan Mattson will join Christensen from the volleyball squad.

Senior Amy Robinson returns as the team's leading scorer, while Malori Paplow returns to the court after taking a year off.

"That really ups the athleticism," Hanefeld said of Paplow. "If you wanted her in volleyball, Malori was quite an asset to the team. We're hoping that she can be a kid that can help us."

Sabrina Bolin should also see some quality minutes at a guard position, as should Hollie Kremmin (wing), Alli Holt (wing) and Ellie Hormig (post).

"We're much more athletic than we have been in the past. We're probably one of the more athletic teams I've coached as far as getting up and down the floor," Hanefeld said. "We're deeper, and we're going to be a little quicker -- that will be our strengths this year."

One area the Eagles hope to improve this season will be their scoring. Windom was last in the Southwest Conference a year ago with just over 47 points per contest.

"We've worked very hard in the off season," Hanefeld said. "We had a very aggressive shooting program in the summer that most of the kids participated in. But I think it's still a challenge for us."

Windom will open its season on Nov. 30 against Martin County West.