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Girls basketball preview: T-M-B looks strong again; SWC hopes to continue where it left off

LES KNUTSON Daily Globe TRACY -- Returning a strong nucleus of athletic talent and basketball experience, the Panthers of Tracy-Milroy-Balaton High School appear to be among the best area teams as another season of high school girls' basketball b...

LES KNUTSON

Daily Globe

TRACY -- Returning a strong nucleus of athletic talent and basketball experience, the Panthers of Tracy-Milroy-Balaton High School appear to be among the best area teams as another season of high school girls’ basketball begins with several games in the coming week.

Last winter, T-M-B rolled to a Camden Conference South championship with a 16-1 league mark while going 25-4 overall, including a trio of post-season tournament victories and a Section 3AA South title. After defeating a strong Pipestone Area squad 54-47 for the south championship, the Panthers’ season ended one game short of a state-tournament trip when perennial power New London-Spicer (in its first season in Section 3AA) outscored T-M-B, 72-55, in the section championship game.

“We return almost everyone from last year’s section runner-up team,” indicated T-M-B head coach Derek Ashbaugh in an email response to questions about this year’s Panthers’ squad. “The girls have high expectations for this season, but also realize that many teams return several key players themselves and that it will be a challenge. We hope that we can rely on our experience throughout the season, allowing us to be even more successful than last year.”

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Coming off another terrific volleyball season, capped by a third-place performance at the Class A state tournament, the Panthers have an abundance of athleticism. Among those exceptional multi-sport athletes is senior Kendra Ludeman, who won the high jump at last spring’s Class A state track and field meet.

Joining Ludeman with lots of varsity experience are post players Sydney Lanoue, Evelyn Dolan and Sidney Karbo, along with Gabby Gervais, Kaylee Kirk, Hannah Jensen and Alyssa Gleis who return with perimeter skills. A dynamic point guard, Kirk can score in multiple ways and has exceptional ability to penetrate and dish the ball to the Panthers’ assortment of inside scoring threats.

While T-M-B competes in the Camden and in Class AA, the always-competitve 11-team Red Rock Conference appears to be well-balanced with a trio of veteran squads frequently mentioned as most likely to be leading the pack.

Southwest Minnesota Christian, again coached by Denise Nerem, has won or shared the conference championship each of the last four seasons, going a remarkable 62-2 (.969) during that span, going undefeated in league play (16-0) last season and in 2012-2013.

Last winter, the Eagles were 27-2 overall and won the Section 3A championship before ending the season with a 91-79 loss to eventual state runnerup Maranatha Christian Academy in the state-tournament quarterfinals at Mariucci Arena.

Six seniors graduated off of Southwest’s exceptional ’15-16 team, but the Eagles return leading scorer Chantel Groen, a stellar all-around senior athlete. Juniors Emily Nerem and Brooklyn DeKam, along with sophomore Hannah Nerem also return with plenty of varsity experience. Groen led the conference in field goal shooting percentage last season, making 91-of-145 shots (62.8 percent) and was the league’s eighth-leading scorer (13.6 ppg).

“Southwest Christian just seems to reload -- and win,” summed up veteran Adrian head coach Randy Strand about the Eagles. Strand, who is approaching 500 career victories, also points to Red Rock Central and Hills-Beaver Creek as top-caliber teams in the Red Rock. “Both are loaded with talent and return a ton of starters,” he said of the Falcons and Patriots.

RRC finished second in the conference last season with a 14-2 league record and was 21-7 overall. The Falcons return six of last year’s top seven in seniors Ramsey Piotter, Rachel Kedl and Taylor Price, along with sophomores Vanessa Kedl, Kaitlyn Rindfleisch and Hayley Simonson.

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Piotter, one of the best defensive players in the league, led the conference in assists last year (66) and was third in steals (46). Rachel Kedl was league’s third-leading rebounder (10.7 per game), sixth in scoring (13.9 ppg) and blocked the second most number of shots (42).

H-BC was fourth in the conference last year (12-4) and went 16-8 overall. The Patriots were the best free-throw shooting team in the league (209-of-306, 68.3 percent). The inside tandem of 5-10 senior Avery Van Roekel (16.4) and 6-0 sophomore Sidney Fick (14.3) combined for more than 30 points per game in conference action last winter, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, on the league’s final scoring list.

Sophomore Grace Bundesen also averaged in double figures (10.3) last season as a freshman and Fick displayed her shooting range by hitting 21-of-50 three pointers for 42 percent, the league’s third-best percentage from behind the arc.

MCC, W-WG striving for improvement

Murray County Central was just 1-25 overall last winter, but the Rebels under second-year head coach Patrick Freeman showed they can play good defense and will likely be a much improved team this season.

“Our girls have had a really good offseason,” said Freeman, who guided MCC’s football squad to a state tournament appearance this fall. “A lot of them were in the gym often this summer and also participated in our strength and conditioning program. We focused on the fundamentals and I believe we are going in the right direction.”

Seniors Mallory Loosbrock and Kaitlyn Knakmuhs will provide experience and leadership for the Rebels, while guard junior Riley Schmitz, along with sophomores Montana Beckmann and Elise Rohrer are also likely to make strong contributions.

Loosbrock was the fourth-leading rebounder in the conference last season (9.7 per game) and blocked 15 shots.

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A similar situation exists at Westbrook-Walnut Grove where the Chargers, under the leadership of enthusiastic head coach Adam Kletscher are striving for continued improvement.

“We may not have a real deep bench, but our top six players have played lots of minutes together,” Kletscher said. “We need to step up our defense this season.”

The Chargers bring back several good shooters, including 5-4 senior guard Emma Woelber, who Kletscher says is also “a very good passer with improved court vision.” Seniors Cassidy Mischke, Avoree Bakken and Mariah Hicks return with with inside experience, as do junior Theresa Merrick and sophomore Grace Woelber on the perimeter.

The team’s “workhorse,” Mischke was the conference’s seventh-leading rebounder last season (7.1 per game), while Emma Woelber averaged 10.2 points per game and was eighth in the league in assists (41).

Fulda returns senior guard Randi Tiesler, who was the league’s second-leading scorer last season (18.6 ppg), along with classmates Courtney Zins, Kasey Hermeling and Kennedy Deuschle. Juniors Emily Schroer, Camryn Baumhoefner and Brandi Spies are also back for long-time FHS head coach Gregg Slaathaug.

Anna Brandt, Heron Lake-Okabena’s new head coach, welcomes the return of senior Gabi Stenzel, a three-year starting guard for the Wildcats. Hard-working senior forward Kaylan Untiedt, along with junior guards Brianna Hinkeldey, Kiana Leighty and Tessla Crowell also return with varsity experience.

Edgerton was third in the final conference standings last season (12-4). Mia Wassink, the league’s leading rebounder (13.2) and third-highest scorer (18.0 ppg), graduated. But the Flying Dutchmen return several top performers from ’15-16, including senior guards Elizabeth Buckridge (12.4 ppg) and Jenny Nelson, along with junior Chynna Berning, on the perimeter.  Senior Halle Wassink returns as an inside force for EHS, having pulled down 6.8 rebounds per game last season.

Adrian will look to seniors Mikayla Jeffers (wing) and Taylor Heidebrink (center) for leadership and will be counting on juniors Hannah Bullerman (guard), Kaitlyn Christians (wing), Paige Bullerman (post) and Lexi Slater (post) to contribute to a balanced attack for the Dragons.

Ellsworth head coach Mike Palm has four returning starters -- senior Hannah Kramer, junior Devin Dreesen, sophomore Sierra Smith and freshman Ashlyn Meester. Megan Popkes, the team’s leading scorer (13.7 ppg, seventh in the conference), graduated.

“Our goal is to play with a lot of effort and energy every night and be a competitive team,” summed up Palm about this year’s Panthers.

Mountain Lake Area was 15-9 overall last winter and the Wolverines were fifth in the conference (10-5). Signey Stoesz, the league’s leading scorer (22.4 ppg) and leader in steals (75) graduated. Returning for head coach Wayne Klassen are seniors Liana Blomgren, Brook Sunderman and Lexia Peters, along with junior Marta Stoesz and freshman guard Margo Stoesz.

Maras returns for Eagles; Cardinals bring back four starters, plus Sawtelle

Windom Area has a trio of returning senior starters as guards Kyli Naumann and Hallie Will return, along with forward Madison Maras, who has been the leading scorer for the Eagles each of the past two seasons.

With a good group of talented freshmen, Windom head coach Jeff Huska is looking at lots of depth this season. “We have a good mix of experienced and inexperienced. Our girls are practicing with lots of energy and I’m looking forward to what we will look like -- with more depth than we’ve had in several years -- once the games get rolling.”

Luverne head coach TJ Newgard returns four starters from a squad which won seven games last winter, while playing through numerous injuries. One of those injured players -- senior forward Kami Sawtelle -- is back after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Her presence near the basket was a positive factor for the Cardinals two years ago when she was a sophomore.

Seniors Hailey Remme (post) and Zayna Hustoft (wing/post) return after fine seasons last year and junior guard Joci Oye and Sierra Schmuck bring back plenty of court sense and athleticism.

“Depth will be an advantage for us this year,” said Newgard. “We will be able to play as many as 10 girls on any given night with a good mix of perimeter players as well as interior players.”

Jackson County Central returns seniors Annika Lilleberg and Jayni Anderson, along with juniors Molly Brinkman and Lauren Murphy as four of its most experienced varsity players, while freshman Alaina Wolff scored a lot of varsity points last winter as an eighth-grader.

Pipestone Area enjoyed a fine season last year, going 23-5 overall. T-M-B defeated the Arrows in the 3AA South final. PA was second in the Big South West (behind undefeated Marshall) with a league record of 10-2.

Berkland, Harberts, Grimes provide S-O’s leadership

Playing in the highly-competitive Siouxland Conference, Sibley-Ocheyedan will look for senior leadership from Britta Harberts and Jill Berkland, along with junior Megan Grimes, who is back for a third season as the starting point guard for the Generals.

Henry Eekhoff, who coached S-O to a six-player state championship in 1986 and was coaching the Generals 10 years later when they won a five-player state title, is back for his third season during his second tenure at the school.

“We have decent experience back,” he said. “But our schedule in the Siouxland is really challenging.”

Harberts, Berkland, junior Carly Seivert, Grimes and junior Toni Lonneman were S-O’s five leading scorers last season, while Harberts and Lonneman were the team’s top two rebounders. Grimes led in assists, while Berkland and Grimes were a close 1-2 in steals.

Harris-Lake Park returns a pair of talented sophomores In Jazmin Voehl and Taylor Meyer, who were the second and third leading scorers for the Wolves last season. Katherine Ihnen graduated after leading H-LP in both scoring and rebounding last winter.

There are no seniors on the Wolves’ roster and just three juniors -- Blake Gunderson, Avery Heikens and Skylar Forbes -- along with six sophomores and a pair of freshmen.

At George-Little Rock, leading scorers Mariah Terhark, Mia Graham and Taylor Jumbeck all graduated. Seniors Emily Hansmann, Mariah Leemkuil and Kaley Arends return with the most varsity experience for the Mustangs.

Sheldon was also hit hard by graduation, as leading scorers Kayla Van Meeteren, Sydney Iedema and Haley Jungers are no longer with the Orabs.

Senior Bryn Groff was Sheldon’s assist leader, second-best rebounder and fourth-leading scorer last season. She also led the Orabs in steals. Joining Groff with lots of varsity experience are juniors Katie Wagner (fifth-leading rebounder) and Kacy Kamphoff (fifth-leading scorer).    

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