Girls basketball: NLS opens at state tourney Wednesday
A little more than 18 years ago, Taylor Thunstedt’s mom and dad were watching the Minnesota State Girls Basketball Tournament on TV — mom in labor — waiting for the future New London-Spicer Wildcats guard to be born.
Last Friday, on Thunstedt’s birthday, the Wildcats got past Sauk Centre in overtime to earn a berth — so to speak — in the 2014 state tournament. In a youth and prep basketball career that includes records and accomplishments too numerous to recount in full, playing in the tournament was a mission accomplished for Thunstedt and the Wildcats.
“I guess it was meant to be,” said a laughing Thunstedt, who leads the 24-5 Wildcats against Esko in the Class AA quarterfinals at 8 p.m. today at Mariucci Arena. “It’s definitely been our main goal all along. I knew at the beginning of the season that that (Section 6AA final) game would be on my birthday. I’ve had my eye on that the whole season.”
Area basketball fans have had their eye on Thunstedt all season, just to see how much more the 5-foot-8 North Dakota State recruit could pack into her career.
Thunstedt is, by far, the top career scorer in the Tribune area, entering the tournament with 2,742 points. That’s more than 400 points better than No. 2.
She owns the school’s records for scoring, 3-point shots (427) and steals (478), and her 506 assists are third all-time.
In her four years as a regular and starter, the Wildcats have a 92-22 record, a 40-14 mark in the Wright County and West Central conferences, and they are 11-3 in postseason games. She was the first freshman ever named to a Tribune All-Area first team and next week she is a lock to earn her fourth All-Area first team selection.
Thunstedt enters the tournament averaging 27.4 points, 5.5 assists, 4.4 steals and 3.8 rebounds per game. Just as a scorer, she accounts for almost 40 percent of the Wildcats’ output.
But her discussions of the team rarely center around what she does or doesn’t do, aside from noting she was “ice cold” in the first half against Sauk Centre and that Ashlyn Geister, Olivia Setterberg and the rest of the Wildcats regulars kept the team afloat.
“I can’t be inside her head and know everything she’s thinking but everything she does is team-oriented,” said NLS head coach Mike Dreier. “She’s averaging almost 6 assists per game and you can’t do that if you’re not willing to give up the ball.”
“Ashlyn had a fantastic game and she and Olivia were 17-of-20 (from the floor),” Thunstedt said. “A lot of times, teams come into a game thinking that all they have to do is stop me. That’s really not true. We have a lot of people who can score. If you want to come out and that’s your mindset? Great. That works out well for us.”
College recruiters have been inquiring about Thunstedt from the moment they could. In addition to her NLS play, she plays elite AAU ball. Several larger colleges were after her but she chose NDSU for a variety of reasons, including a top-shelf basketball program.
Making her college choice freed her up to have, perhaps, her best prep season, Dreier said.
“The burden of her future had left and I think she was more comfortable,” he said. “She didn’t have to worry about what she was doing and the kind of impact it would have on the people recruiting her. She was able to enjoy the season.”
The season unfolded nicely under those circumstances. The Wildcats defeated two other teams in the Class AA field — Minnehaha Academy and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted — and they won the Wright County Conference’s West Division.
Then, the exorcised the demon that is Sauk Centre. The Wildcats missed a state tournament trip last year when they lost to the Mainstreeters in the section finals at St. Cloud State. In 2012, NLS lost two regular season games to Sauk Centre while still a member of the West Central Conference. And in 2011, the Wildcats were 25-3, with all three losses coming against Sauk Centre, the last by six points in the subsection finals.
“I’d never beaten them in my four years on varsity,” Thunstedt said. “This was finally our year to beat them. We’ve been playing against them since fourth and fifth grade, and we definitely had the mindset that we could beat them.”
And so one dream had come true, just months before six Wildcats seniors graduate. With that, another waits.
Esko could present problems for the Wildcats, but at least one of them won’t be 6-foot-9 Eskomos alum Savanna Trapp, who is a UCLA freshman this season. Esko reached Section 7AA finals four times but couldn’t get by Braham.
Now, finally in the tournament, the Eskomos rely on two freshmen — Ava Gonsorowski (9.8 points per game) and Judy Wagemaker (9.5 points per game) — for much of their offense, and junior Ashley Bergerson averages 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
“They have great, athletic kids,” Dreier said. “They come out in man defense and they hit their outside shots.”
Thunstedt is confident in the Wildcats’ ability to deal with anything Esko might throw at them. Virtually born into the state tournament, she’s proven that there’s always more to come.
“We’ve had this goal since fourth grade,” she said. “Our goal has always been getting to the state tournament, but that shouldn’t be all. We can’t be satisfied with that. We want to play our best and go as far as we can.”