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PREP GIRLS' BASKETBALL: Raiders and Vikings set for battle

FULDA -- Fresh off a last-minute, come-from-behind victory over Adrian in the Section 3A South championship game, the Fulda Raiders girls' basketball team is now one win away from reaching the Class A state tournament.

Fulda shakes hands with Adrian
Daniel Kerwin/Daily Globe In this file photo, the Fulda Raiders (red and black) shake hands with the Adrian Dragons after the Raiders won 67-64 in overtime against the Dragons in a Jan. 4 girls' basketball game in Fulda.

FULDA -- Fresh off a last-minute, come-from-behind victory over Adrian in the Section 3A South championship game, the Fulda Raiders girls' basketball team is now one win away from reaching the Class A state tournament.

Currently riding a nine-game winning streak, Fulda (23-6) has not lost since Feb. 5 when the Minneota Vikings rallied from a 23-20 halftime deficit to claim a 55-52 home-court victory over the Raiders.

That same Minneota team -- 24-1 and ranked fourth in the final state polls -- is the last hurdle for Fulda to overcome in its quest for a fifth state-tournament appearance in the past 10 years (first since 2007). Fulda and Minneota meet Friday night in the Section 3A championship game at SMSU in Marshall, with tip-off scheduled for 5 p.m.

"I couldn't be more proud of our girls, as they have worked extremely hard for this chance," Fulda head coach Gregg Slaathaug said Tuesday night. "We have played a very tough schedule and prepared ourselves for an opportunity like this. We feel like all that hard work has paid dividends for us and that we are playing at a very high level at the right time."

The Raiders, who were 4-5 against non-conference opponents during the regular season, went 16-1 to win the Red Rock Conference championship and earned the top seed for the Section 3A South tournament. Fulda claimed large-margin victories over Hills-Beaver Creek (75-28) and Westbrook-Walnut Grove (76-50) to begin its playoff run before rallying to knock off Adrian 38-34 last Friday night.

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Junior guard Courtney Hulstein (5-7) is the Raiders' leading scorer, averaging 18 points per game. Seniors Brittany Hulstein (5-10 guard) and Kassie Wilkening (5-8 forward) both average nearly 12 points per game, while forwards Tiffany Gehl (5-11 junior) and Sabrina Raddle (5-9 senior) average about nine and six points per game, respectively.

"Fulda is a well-coached team with great balance throughout its starting lineup," Minneota head coach Chad Johnston said. "They have a lot of girls who contribute, and we know that Coach Slaathaug will have them ready to play. They can score in a variety of ways, and they play very good man-to-man, team defense, which is what we are expecting from them and are preparing for."

Sophomore guard Brittney Hermeling (5-6) and freshman forward Melissa Gehl (5-8) are the top two reserves for the experienced Raiders, who led the section in scoring with 63.6 points per game this season.

"We have had five different girls lead us in scoring in at least one game throughout the season, and we have had numerous games with four or five double-figure scorers," explained Slaathaug, who is in his 10th season as head coach of the Raiders. "Everyone knows their role and does their job on our team, as we have a nice mix of players and have been fortunate enough to stay healthy."

Meanwhile, the Vikings led the section in total defense -- allowing just 36.5 points per game. The Vikings' only loss of the season came Jan. 13 on the road against Marshall (56-39), which is playing Hutchinson in the Section 2AAA championship game tonight.

In fact, Fulda and Marshall are the only teams that have scored at least 50 points on Minneota. The Vikings have limited seven opponents to less than 30 points and gave up a season-low 14 points to Lincoln HI on Feb. 8.

"We have played pretty good defense, especially here late in the season," summed up Johnston, who is also in his 10th year at Minneota. "Overall, we have a veteran team and came into this season with high expectations. We have a lot of girls who have played together for a long time, and we have put together a really good season up to this point."

Owners of a current 17-game winning streak, the Vikings captured the Camden Conference championship with a perfect 14-0 record -- plus a 36-28 victory over MACCRAY in the league title game -- and earned the top seed in Section 3A North. Tournament victories over Ortonville (60-37), Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (59-19) and Canby (51-40) have followed, as Minneota is back in the section finals for the first time since 2005.

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Six seniors, a pair of juniors and a sophomore give the Vikings lots of depth, as they use up to nine players on a consistent basis. Senior forward Ashlynn Muhl (6-0) headlines the Minneota starting lineup, as the all-state post player averages 17.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.

Senior forwards Taya Kockelman (6-0) and Amber Grengs (5-10) join junior guards Kelsey Hennen (5-5) and Katelyn Kack (5-7) in the starting lineup, as well. Each averages between 11.4 and 5.9 points per game, as they have combined to hit 96 of the team's 115 3-pointers this year -- led by Kockelman's 50 made baskets from behind the arc.

Sophomore Rachel Cheadle (5-10 forward) and seniors Megan McNeill (5-6 guard), Kayla Maeyaert (5-5 guard) and Sara Maeyaert (6-0 forward) are the top four players that come in off of Minneota's bench.

"They are loaded," Slaathaug said about the Vikings. "They are well-coached and have three really good players in Muhl, Kockelman and Hennen, plus a ton of other girls who all know how to play. There are not many weaknesses on that team with all their size, speed and shooters, and we are going to have to play very well in order to compete and give ourselves a chance to win.

"This has been one of the most, if not the most, enjoyable seasons that I have had as a coach at Fulda," continued Slaathaug. "A win or a loss on Friday won't change that, but hopefully we can score at least one more point than Minneota does. Both teams have improved since our first meeting, and I wouldn't trade our team for anyone else's."

The winner of Friday's game -- which is a rematch of the triple-overtime classic won 68-65 by Minneota in 2005 -- advances to next week's Class A state tournament and will play the champion of Section 4A (either Maranatha Christian or New Life Academy) in the first round Thursday afternoon (March 17, 1 p.m.) at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

Fulda's Sabrina Raddle
Daniel Kerwin/Daily Globe In this file photo, Fulda's Sabrina Raddle (11) prepares to make a pass in front of Adrian's Hailee Heitkamp (14) during a Jan. 4, 2011 game between the two teams in Fulda.

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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