CLC champs made upward climb quickly
This edition of Cardinals girls basketball took a giant step. It's been 30 years since the program showed such a one-year gain in Central Lakes Conference wins.
The year's title-winning squad has won 16 CLC contests with today's game at Fergus Falls offering the possibility of a 17-1 finish. Last year Willmar was 8-10, a sixth-place tie.
Eight teams launched the new league in 1977-78. Willmar was 1-13 the first winter, last place with Alexandria.
The second year Willmar improved to 7-7, tying for fifth place -- a six-win bounce.
Willmar's dip last year followed an 11-7 CLC record in 2006-07. The team was just reloading.
In the four years previous, with all-time scoring and rebound leader Laura Nielsen in the post, coach Brad Atchison's squads were a combined 59-7 in CLC games and two titles.
This winter is no surprise; improvement was anticipated. Willmar was young last year while their CLC foes were senior loaded.
"We had Jena Thompson and Kelsey Evans back, two gifted and proven all-conference players," said Atchison, who came to Willmar in 1995 from Clara City. "What really helped is Hannah Smith holding a coming-out party. She's like no forward I've had. She's just amazing on the boards. She's relentless and that's contagious."
In Evans, the Cardinals have a player who can take care of the ball and score, around 16 points per game, plus ...
"She's probably the best defender in the conference," says her coach. "She's had a great, great year and this will be her third year all-conference."
Alex Lippert, a 6-3 junior who comes off the bench, has become more a factor since Christmas.
"She's carried us on defense and won some games for us," said Atchison. "She's worked hard at her game. She's always had the ability. She just needed to taste some success; I think volleyball helped her confidence."
Starting senior Emily Nelsen has been a team leader, along with Evans, the other co-captain. Nelsen doesn't score a lot but her passing, defense and rebounding is basic to the team's success.
Mariel Aamot and Hannah Murphy both can score and have been interchangeable in the backcourt while bringing the ball up with Evans. Lesley Christianson has been a senior leader and defensive stopper. Her clutch three-pointer saved the day against St. Cloud Apollo.
Atchison said this has been among his most enjoyable years in coaching.
"This is a fun bunch," he said. "There's great chemistry. We really do take it one game at a time. Our motto is 'Just worry about the Red' -- what you can control."
Willmar will lose four seniors (Christianson, Evans, Murphy and Nelsen) but the understudies on Jenyne Beehler's JV team have put up a 15-2 CLC record (18-3 overall). Look for Willmar to put up a vigorous defense of the CLC title it now holds.
Next up is the Section 2AAA tournament. Worthington (21-2) is the team to beat but Willmar (21-3) got the No. 2 seed.
Dorsey and Smith
Pat Dorsey (WHS 1988) and his No. 9 ranked (AAAA) Edina boys basketball team is 20-3. Two of the losses are to No. 1 Hopkins, 90-53 and again 81-54. The Hornets have games left with No. 3 St. Cloud Tech and No. 8 Wayzata.
"(Hopkins) is the Metro All-Stars with seven players going to major colleges," stated the Hornets' coach in an email this week. "These games should get us ready for sections. We hope to get the No. 1 seed ahead of Eden Prairie and Bloomington Jefferson."
At Eden Prairie, Lee Smith (WHS '84) has the Eagles hockey team on a 12-game win streak heading to the Section 2A playoffs as the No. seed. The Eagles are 22-3 with all three losses by one goal, twice to Edina and the other to Bloomington Jefferson. The Eagles won the second meeting with the Jaguars.
At Blaine (21-3-1), head coach Dave Aus (WHS '87) has a good shot at returning to the Class AA state tournament a fourth straight year.
Force for Warriors
Casey Sussenguth, a Ridgewater College freshman from Willmar, was named last week MCAC Southern Division Player of the Week. It's the third time 6-7 freshman has been honored, all in the last month.
Sussenguth has moved up to second in the Southern Division scoring at 17.5 ppg and is also second in rebounding at 8.8 rpg.
The Warriors (16-10) open against Vermilion (22-5) Friday evening in the MCAC state tournament at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Chelsey Wierschem finished her five-year varsity career as the second leading scorer all-time in girls hockey. Her 165 career points is second only to Alyssa Dahl (2000-2005), who logged 90 goals and 100 assists for 190 points.
Wierschem's 95 career goals are a school record and her 34 goals last year are a single-season record. Her 70 career assists are second to Dahl.
She has signed with UW-Superior for hockey and may also play softball.
Jack Unger is an uncommon student/athletes who found a second-life, athletically, after basketball.
He played school basketball four years beginning in seventh grade. This year, he joined the swim team.
"I love it," he said during a lull in the CLC meet recently. "I was on the bubble (as far as basketball). I might have made the JV team."
Basketball, Willmar's most popular winter sport, starts with 30 to 50 boys in seventh grade. Six years later, the competitive mesh has filtered out all but perhaps a half-dozen seniors.
Where do all those boys go who don't make it? Many continue to play hoops recreationally, but not many take up another interscholastic sport.
But the enthusiastic Unger wasn't about to retire to the sidelines. "I wanted to try something new. I did some swimming in third grade and had friends on the team. I didn't just want to sit at home after school and play video games.
He swam on two relays and the breaststroke in the meet. Not bad for a converted forward.