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Smith had season he'll never forget

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sports Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

There's a joke in the Twin Cities that the people in Eden Prairie live there because they can't afford a house in Edina.

True or not, expectations at the local high school are ridiculously high in each suburb.

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Each winter, Lee Smith's team has to follow Mike Grant, whose Eagles' football teams consistently get to the Prep Bowl final.

Smith, the Eagles' boys hockey coach since 1993, has reached state five times, but never got better than fourth until -- until Saturday.

"This kind of gets the gorilla off our back," said Smith, a standout three-sport athlete at Willmar, who graduated in 1984.

Now, Smith can relax a little; no more question on why the Eagles haven't won the biggest team trophy in Minnesota prep sports.

A sixth-grade math teacher, Smith said he might not have lasted in the Eden Prairie pressure cooker without the support of the activities director, who happens to be Grant.

"He's been a wonderful A.D.," said Smith, during a phone conversation this week. "He either believes in you or he doesn't."

The Eagles' victory is not a huge surprise. They were seeded No. 2 behind Edina and had 13 players off teams that won the 'A' PeeWee state title and two 'A' Bantams championships. Ten sophomores played a big roll in this season's varsity team.

Eden Prairie beat defending champion Hill-Murray, Blaine and then Moorhead 3-0 for the title.

It was a big haul for the Eagles: Smith was named Class AA coach of the year, the Eagles were academic champs and senior Nick Leddy was named "Mr. Hockey."

The championship was Smith's 300th career win.

To the Show

Sam Sussenguth played in three section championship games for Willmar. He didn't get to state.

But he's going to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on Friday wearing the uniform of the North Dakota State Bison.

This more than makes up for those section losses, he said when reached by phone Monday in Fargo.

When he recovered from the scrum at the end of the Bison victory over Oakland (Mich.) in the last seconds of the Summit Conference Tournament's championship game, the first person to wrap him in a bear hug was younger brother, Casey.

"I was so proud watching Casey (at the 2008 state tournament)," said Sam. "This time, he was so happy for me."

Sam hasn't played much this winter, averaging less than six minutes per game, but expects to see action against Kansas.

"My minutes picked up in the conference tournament when we were playing bigger teams and we had some foul trouble," said the 2005 Willmar graduate.

The No. 14-seeded Bison meet the No. 3 Jayhawks at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Metrodome. The Jayhawks are defending national champions and won the Big 12 Conference despite five new starters.

"We'll have to play a perfect game," said the 6-8, 235-pound forward, who is a redshirt junior.

In practice, he's played the part of another Minnesotan, 6-11 Cole Aldrich, the Jayhawks' second-leading scorer out of Bloomington Jefferson.

The Summit Conference playoff champions feel they can play with the major teams. Last year, this group beat Marquette and Wisconsin and recently lost to Southern California by three points. The Trojans are No. 10 in the Midwest Region.

The Bison got the automatic NCAA bid in their first year of eligibility when senior Ben Woodside scored with three seconds left to beat Oakland. Woodside is one of eight Minnesotans on the team.

"We came here knowing we'd have one shot at the NCAAs," said Sam. "Most of us got no other Division I offers. It's a big reason we came here just that chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

On the fly

Former Cardinal and Ridgewater Warrior junior infielder Tyler Horning is hitting .418 at St. Cloud State (19-5) following the Huskies 9-1 spring swing through Arizona. Other ex-Warriors are having strong starts as juniors: SCSU pitcher David Deminsky (Sartell) is 4-0; at Southwest Minnesota State Scott Rambow (New London) is 9-for-13 with five RBI for the 5-0 Mustangs, while Matt Bauer (Tracy) is 10-for-19 with 10 RBI.

Bonnie Henrickson's Kansas Jayhawks (18-13) will host a WNIT game on Monday night. It's the 10th time Henrickson has taken a team to the post-season.

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