Making history by competing in the state tournament for the first time in program history, the Waconia Wildcats did their community, school, program, and players proud by winning their first ever State Tournament game, beating an extremely good, tough, and polished #3 seed Red Wing, and reaching the semifinals, losing to last year’s runner up in #2 Becker. We were supposed to play #4 Simley in the 3rd/4th place game, but it, along with the championship game, the consolation bracket, much of AA and A tournament, and the entire boys basketball state tournament, got cancelled as large-scale tournaments and gatherings across the nation and world were cancelled due to the effort to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. This post will not in any way question or criticize that decision, as macro-scale public health matters outweigh (but not by much, by the way we felt! Kidding…?) our state 3rd place / 4th place game, but it was still a really hard thing for our team to learn 45 minutes before our semifinal game: that if we lost, we wouldn’t get another game, closure, time on the floor to take team pictures, medal ceremonies, etc., which is part of the experience of making the state tournament. And again, I know that the large scale health of the population outweighs those things, but two things can be true at the same time, and we really took it hard. As I type this, I had hoped to be prepping the Simley scouting report, watching video, and getting to go to play one final game with this group that accomplished so much and made Wildcat history, and as time passes (I know it’s only been one day, but it doesn’t feel like it!), it’s not getting easier. Nevertheless, here’s how our two games went in the State tournament.
State Quarterfinal vs. Red Wing
The Pavilion was rocking from the get-go, and we jumped out to a good early start, taking a quick 13-4 lead against Red Wing’s stout defense. Both teams definitely felt the nerves of the situation, with so much pressure on, with a different style of background and hoop to look at, and it showed, as the normally hot-shooting Wingers struggled from the field, as did we after that initial burst of scoring. In watching the video again, I notice how much effort and energy we expelled on defense, and to great effect – we had to play one of our best defensive games of the year to try and stop Red Wing’s potent offense – I’ve seen them carve up opponents with backcuts and 3’s from all over the court numerous times, and it happened to us this summer as well, but every time they curled or backlit we were at least aware, if not having 2 girls on the backside making it tough. They still got some, but we made it tough, and got numerous steals and tips to disrupt the flow. It’s extremely hard to slow down the Nelson sisters, who shoot the ball at an unbelievable percentage from 3, and have mastered the runner in the paint, but we did a great job pressuring all game to hold them to only 45 points – Simply put, it was our best defensive performance of the year, and it shows that to really do damage in the post season, one must play intense, stout pressure defense – we met our goal of keeping the other team under 50 in both the Marshall game (section championship) and the state quarterfinal, and the results speak for themselves. Another monumental task was trying to slow down #25, Deming, their second leading scorer, and to quote one of our players, “the strongest girl I’ve ever played against.” She made life extremely difficult for our posts, and is one of the best post defenders we’ve seen this year, playing with strength and discipline. However, the combination of Stier and Dykstra held her to (I think) 9 points on the night, and we had to absolutely battle to accomplish that task. Some have said that our win was ugly, or whatever superlative they choose, but I see it as two teams absolutely DIGGING IN on defense with everything on the line, and my gosh, the playoffs are about surviving and advancing no matter the circumstance, and I’m so proud of our effort to pull it off in Overtime in our first every state tournament!
As per usual, we had many contributors to our success; the aforementioned defense in the post, the hounding of the Nelsons by Zimmer, Lenz, Honnold and Swanson was incredibly tough to pull off, and took all of their combined efforts, and they were still draining bombs from deep. But, we kept it to a reasonable number by challenging everything and staying in their space as best we could.
Scoring-wise, we needed someone to step up and hit some shots, and no one embodied that ability more on this night than Addy Salzer, who lead with 19 points. She hit a couple early, but also had a 3, and layup, and 4 free throws in Overtime to help us seal the deal. It was a spectacular performance of will and being willing to take the big shot when the pressure is on! Also scoring for the Wildcats were Mel Honnold and Sydni Olson each with 6, hitting huge 3’s when we needed a jolt of scoring; Ava Stier with 6, and a huge layup down the stretch; Audrey Swanson with 4 (a huge layup on a BLOB was key), Allie Zimmer with an and-1, and Jayda Lenz (2 clutch FT’s in OT), Natalie Meath (big jumper before halftime), Tess Johnson (gigantic layup with time running out in regulation to put us up 1) and Dani Dykstra (huge layup in OT to create separation) each with 2. Every point was earned on this night against Red Wing’s vaunted defense (they held their section final opponent to 7 points in a WHOLE HALF!).
Rebounding: Swanson, Johnson, and Salzer each had 6, Meath and Stier each had 5, Lenze and Dykstra had 3, and Zimmer and Olson each had 2.
Assists: Honnold lead with 4, Johnson had 3, and Many had 1.
Steals: Swanson lead with 4, Zimmer Dykstra Salzer had 2, and Johnson and Stier had 1.
Blocks: Meath lead with 4, and Stier and Honnold each had 1.
This was an incredibly exciting game, and to emerge victorious in OT in our first game in our first state tournament was really something special, and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I just could not be prouder of what we did.
State Semifinal vs. Becker
It was a quick turnaround to play the #2 seed and runner up from last year’s state championship, and the lack of preparation did show up a bit against them. We gave up too many buckets on set plays and in transition, especially when compared with what our players have been able to do when they get time to really digest what another team is trying to do (Mankato West, Marshall, Red Wing). Now, that’s no excuse – Becker is extremely good, as we all know, and they were hungry to get back to the state championship, and played their best game of the year at the right time and on the right stage. They shot the ball at an extremely high rate as compared to the previous day, ran the floor effectively, and finished around the basket extremely well. We definitely hit more shots than the previous day as well, but gave up waaaaaaaaay to much on the defensive end, giving up 9 more points in the first half than we did the entire previous game. We fought, and it seemed as if whenever we made a push to get back in the game, getting within 6 (I believe) at one point, they had an answer, and we weren’t able to get consecutive stops in a row, much less string together the 3-straight necessary to spark a run, and ultimately fell to Becker.
Foul trouble also hurt us: with our two leading rebounders on the bench for much of the first half, we gave up too many offensive rebounds on the backside of the hoop to #23, and she made us pay. Simply put – if we get those stops, finish around the hoop better, and play better defense on the drive, we are in that game, as we had the opportunities to do it.
Still, I’m proud of what we did on the historically awesome Williams Arena floor. We never gave up, we kept attacking, and we took in the fact that we were on the stage we were on because of how good we can be when we play for each other. It was extremely fun to see our girls out there on that floor, making shots, running the floor, and giving their all, and we took in the fact that we were one of the final four teams in AAA competing for the title.
Scoring: Audrey Swanson lead with 16, hitting a big 3, attacking the basketball, and going 7-11 from the field. Addy Salzer had 14 (and 10 rebounds, for the double double), attacking and getting to the hoop in multiple ways; Natalie Meath was perfect from the field, going 5-5 from 2 and 1-1 from 3 (Sauce, I will talk to coach Whalen about you, as promised, seeing as how you shoot so well in Williams arena!); Tess Johnson had 10, scoring in many different ways as well; both Mel Honnold and Sydni Olson hit a pair of 3’s that were so sweet going in; Dani Dykstra had a well-earned 5; Morgan Meyer, Jayda Lenz, and Ava Stier each had 2, and Allie Zimmer also had 1.
Rebounding: Salzer had 10, Meath had 5, Johnson had 4, Swanson had 3, Dykstra had 2, and Machacek, Meyer, Cebulla, Olson, and Stier each had 1.
Assists: Zimmer with 4, Johnson and Salzer with 3, Lenz with 2, Honnold, Dykstra, and Stier with 1.
Steals: Johnson with 3, Salzer with 2, and Lenz, Stier, Swanson, and Olson each with 1.
Our third place game against Simley was cancelled, along with the championship game, consolation brackets, and the entire state tournament for boys. It really, really hurts, I’m not going to lie. I understand, but again, our girls had to battle through a lot of uncertainty and distraction in the lead up to all of our games due to the nature of what’s happening in our country right now, and for us to still win a game and put ourselves in that position is not only historic, but extremely admirable and mentally tough. Our girls accomplished so much, peaking at the right time of year, and doing what so many fantastic teams and players before them could not – we ripped the 4-game win streak from the arms of an opponent desperate to take it from us, and it was the most memorable string of games I’ve experienced, and ranks up there with my own high school team making the state tournament my senior year in my mind. I’m so proud of everything that we’ve done as a group, and want to take this time to thank the coaching staff of Anna Schmitt, Ashley Westphal, and Kaylee Damasin for helping this first-year head coach through all the trials and tribulations that come with being a head coach. They put in hours and hours of time trying to get us to where we ended up, and we had a heck of a late-night scouting report writing session the night before our semifinal game that was fueled by the power of Bubble Tape and Werthers Originals in the perfect combination of things for the young and old at heart. I was very lucky to be able to share the bench with them. They each endured a lot in helping me through my first year of being a head coach, and talked me through myriad game situations, gave spectacular subbing advice, and helped us get to where we’d never been before, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
Thanks for strength and conditioning coach Josh Anderson and Trainer Jeff Chrest – we finally kept everyone healthy for a whole season in what seems like forever, and that was a major contributing factor to our making the state tournament, as we knew that it would take all of us to do it.
Thanks to our senior captains Tess Johnson, Jayda Lenz, Natalie Meath, and Hailey Williams for leading us to the promised land through your swagger, reassurance, leadership, clutch play, basketball knowledge, selflessness, and years and years of investment in the game we love so much. We will miss you greatly, and I’ll always remember you and what you meant to us all.
Thanks to all of our players that have put in hours and hours of sweat equity to get us to the “final four,” and that includes the JV, the 9th graders, the scout team, who would instantly learn the plays of myriad opponents so well that we felt like stealing some of the plays (DID WE????????????????? ONLY WE KNOW!??!!), and who challenged our varsity players with more physical play than they at times appreciated, but which prepared us for the ride of our lives to the state semifinals!
Thanks to the managers that gave up countless hours riding busses, entertaining us all with odd interactions with referees, video commentaries, strangely-hypnotic games of speed and skill, and all the personality that we could handle. You all rule!
Thanks for all the parents that supported us, drove countless hours to watch us play, spent many dollars on shirts, volunteered, and on and on, for the benefit of your daughters and their involvement in our basketball program. You can be proud of their immense accomplishment!
Thanks to the administration of WHS, Mark Fredericksen, Paul Sparby, Pat Devine, and especially our Athletic Department and Director Jill Johnson and Lori Schwirtz, who had my back, helped me out with bus time changes and all the secret behind-the-scenes administration stuff that I had no clue about, and TOTALLY MANAGED SMOOTHLY EVERY TIME WITHOUT FAIL FOR SURE 100% CERTAINTY. I couldn’t have managed without you.
And finally, thanks to former coaches: Anna Philp “star” Bell (3x COY), who has always supported the program in ways that still show up today, and who never fails to make remember our great times in coaching; Carl Pierson, who taught me what it is to be as deceptive as possible at all times, how to manage refs smoothly and calmly (??!!?!?!), how to plan practices, scout teams, have immense amounts of fun, seamlessly-integrate Seinfeld references into everyday conversations, and how to be a head coach – you were a spectacular mentor, even if I still suspect that you secretly won COY every year and awarded the trophy to the runner-up; and finally, coach Nelia Von Glan, who still came to practices whenever she could out of a sheer love for the game, the players that she helped develop and mentor, and for the program for which she’s given so much over the years. Your presence was always JUST what we needed RIGHT when we needed it, and you’ve helped me so much. We’d NEVER have had a shot at this without you, and you’re one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen or had the privilege to work with, and I can speak for all of our players in saying that.
I must also, of course, thank my wife, Profe Neibs, for picking up immense slack during the longest season of the year, because I would never have even attempted this undertaking without your blessing and help, and you’re the best teacher and parent, probably of all time, scientifically-speaking. We couldn’t have done it without your support and patience, and that’s 100% truth.
We will absolutely have a banquet, but I don’t know when. The weird nature of the world in which we live at the moment is preventing us from saying anything definitively at this time, but I’ve got a lot of swag to give out, and WE DESERVE IT! So, I’ll keep you posted, and check with our seniors’ schedules first to start to get an idea whenever it’s allowed. I’m working on finding out how we refer to our place in the tournament, trophies, medals, and if I have to make my own freaking medals I’ll do it, as I don’t think the Rock Paper Scissors game I challenged the Simley coach to on Twitter will be either televised or sanctioned to determine 3rd place by the MSHSL.
I’d love to put more pictures on this website, but don’t have many, because I was COACHING IN THE STATE TOURNAMENT nd didn’t want to seem like a total rube with my phone out the entire time, so if you have good pictures you’d like to share that could go up here on the website, I’ll dedicate a page to our State tournament run, specifically, and put them all around where they shall be seen for as long as is humanly possible!
Thanks again to all who invested time, effort, energy, and support for this team that set out to #FINISH what we started a year prior. We finally did it, and it felt like the greatest accomplishment in WGBB history, and we couldn’t have done it without each and every one of the people involved at every step of the way, and that’s how I’ll always remember it, and I hope you do to. Cheers to us!