NEW LONDON — One of the keys to the New London-Spicer girls basketball team reaching back-to-back state tournaments has been its size.

Not many teams in any classification feature three players at or above six feet tall. But the Wildcats have enjoyed that luxury the past few years with seniors Erin Knisley, Ava Kraemer and Grace DeSchepper.

With a significant height advantage, NLS has won 51 of its last 53 games. The team owns the paint on most nights by dominating the glass, altering shots and making baskets from the post.

However, during the Wildcats’ 2021 state run, a member of their tall frontcourt has been absent from the floor.

New London-Spicer senior post Grace DeSchepper watches from the bench as her team warms up for the second half of the Section 3AA championship game against Redwood Valley on Thursday, March 25, 2021 from Montevideo High School. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
New London-Spicer senior post Grace DeSchepper watches from the bench as her team warms up for the second half of the Section 3AA championship game against Redwood Valley on Thursday, March 25, 2021 from Montevideo High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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Selected as one of the team’s captains, DeSchepper suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the regular season. It’s been an up-and-down ride for the 6-1 post since then. She’s grappled with her playing career coming to an end, how she fits into the team’s current success and ways she can still have an impact.

For the end of the bench, she’ll watch the Wildcats take on Providence Academy in a Class AA state semifinal at 5 p.m. Tuesday from the Target Center in Minneapolis.

“I’m mainly looking forward to cheer for them and hopefully put some smiles on their faces with my cheering,” DeSchepper said. “Hopefully, we can win the game.”

“I just see myself as there to support them because this is still my team. Even though I’m not on the court, I’ll do anything I can do to keep them motivated and determined on the court.”

The injury

DeSchepper was an important factor to NLS’ 7-0 start to the season.

The senior post’s best game came when she put up 15 points, pulled down 16 rebounds and collected three steals in a 52-33 win over Annandale on Jan. 26. She added an eight-point, 11-rebound performance against Glencoe-Silver Lake on Feb. 2.

But one week later, her season came crashing down.

Playing at Litchfield on Feb. 9, DeSchepper received a pass from Emma Hanson and saw an opening to take a shot. The attempt came up short. She chased after the offensive rebound but fell to the ground after a collision with sophomore teammate Jaden Coahran.

“It hurt quite a bit, so I stayed down,” DeSchepper recalled.

DeSchepper was helped to the bench, where she watched the rest of the game. Still experiencing pain in her right knee afterward, she spent the night in the emergency room awaiting X-rays.

The following week, she had an MRI scheduled. That’s when she found out that she had a torn anterior cruciate ligament. It was her first serious injury.

“It was the worst news ever because she’s my best friend on and off the court,” Knisley said. “We played together since we were super little. It’s our senior year; we had big hopes for this year and now she’s out.”

With DeSchepper, the Wildcats have been forced to a shorter rotation. Suddenly, Kraemer and Knisley have a bit more weight on their shoulders. The post players have to be more careful about getting into foul trouble. Additionally, if either of them get tired or simply aren’t playing well, there isn’t a player of DeSchepper’s caliber ready to replace them for a spell.

Her absence has been felt elsewhere.

“It’s definitely been different in practice, not having that one other big person to practice and shoot against,” Kraemer said. “It makes it a little bit harder to prepare for other teams when they have taller girls.”

New London-Spicer senior post Grace DeSchepper watches from the bench as her team warms up for the second half of the Section 3AA championship game against Redwood Valley on Thursday, March 25, 2021 from Montevideo High School. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
New London-Spicer senior post Grace DeSchepper watches from the bench as her team warms up for the second half of the Section 3AA championship game against Redwood Valley on Thursday, March 25, 2021 from Montevideo High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Tough pill to swallow

NLS is unbeaten since the DeSchepper injury. Ranked first in the state by Minnesota Basketball News, the team won its final 10 regular season games by average of 27.3 points per game.

DeSchepper was there for all of it, except she was relegated to the sidelines.

She was there when the Wildcats cruised past Albany 62-45 on March 1 in a battle of the two top-ranked teams in the state. She was there when the Wildcats won the regular-season rematch against Litchfield 58-49 on March 5 and their postseason meeting on March 22, a 70-45 blowout in favor of NLS.

“At first I thought it was quite a bit to process that I wouldn’t be able to play with them anymore,” DeSchepper said. “But then as the weeks went on, it started to sink in a lot more. It’s not the best feeling.”

The hardest moment for her was when the team won the section championship. After the Wildcats outlasted Redwood Valley 59-55 to capture the Section 3AA crown on March 25, DeSchepper joined her teammates on the floor for the photos with the championship trophy. DeSchepper was the first one headed toward the locker room once the photos were complete. As she slowly limped off the floor, she began to cry as she was overcome with emotion.

“I’m so proud of this team, but it was a lot to see everyone so happy and proud of themselves during that game when I was just sitting there doing nothing but cheering,” DeSchepper said. “I’m very proud of them winning that (game).

“What I miss the most is being able to laugh with them. If something funny happened, just being with them on the court. I miss just being in the game with them and understanding what they’re feeling.”

The first person to console her was head coach Mike Dreier.

The winningest girls’ basketball head coach in state history has seen his fair share of heartbreak and injuries over the years.

“You just have to remind her of what she means to the team and how important she is to this group,” Dreier said. “The fact is that she is a captain and she has to be a leader even though she can’t be leading on the court right now.”

Bernadeau: Taking stock in area girls basketball

The starting six

As the higher seed team in its state quarterfinal matchup against Lake City last Tuesday, the Wildcats were introduced last to the crowd.

NLS went with its usual starting lineup: Knisley, Kraemer, Hanson, senior guard Mackenzie Rich and sophomore guard Avery Rich. Just before the starting five made their way onto the floor, an honorary sixth starter was called out by the public address announcer at Chanhassen High School: Grace DeSchepper.

“I definitely was not expecting that,” DeSchepper said. “It definitely was a surprise, but it meant a lot to be recognized even though I’m not exactly doing anything on the court with my teammates.”

Dreier came up with the idea and asked the public announcer during pregame warmups if she could have her name called.

“She’s a caring, sensitive girl,” Dreier said of DeSchepper. “She’s willing to do whatever it best for the whole team.”

Not only is DeSchepper caring, she’s arguably the funniest person on the team. Admittedly, she doesn’t take things very seriously and is always willing to insert humor into any situation.

“She’s always super funny and likes to have a really good time,” Knisley said. “She’s always cared about everyone and is just a really great friend.”

Kraemer added: “She’s always the one that will make you laugh and she’s having something funny to say at practice. I guess we missed that on the court, but I’m glad we still have that on the sidelines with us.”

There may be something to replace the joy, thrill, or in DeSchepper’s words, the “laughs” while competing on the hardwood. But she remains a significant factor in NLS’ hopes of winning a state title. And every member of the team has made sure of it.

“They’ve been constantly reassuring me that they miss me and that they wish that I could play with that again,” DeSchepper said. “Same with Coach Dreier, always telling me that I’m a big part of this team and they couldn’t have been here without me. That means a lot.”

State tournament pairings

(at Target Center, Minneapolis)

Class A

Semifinals Tuesday

Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (22-1) vs. Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s (23-0), 10 a.m.

Minneota (23-0) vs. Mountain Iron-Buhl (19-4), noon

Final Friday

Semifinal winners, 1 p.m.

Class AA

Semifinals Tuesday

Albany (22-1) vs. Glencoe-Silver Lake (19-4), 2 p.m.

New London-Spicer (22-0) vs. Providence Academy (21-1), 5 p.m.

Final Friday

Semifinal winners, 3 p.m.

Class AAA

Semifinals Tuesday

Richfield Holy Angels (20-2) vs. Marshall (21-0), 7 p.m.

Hill-Murray (20-1) vs. Becker (17-3), 9 p.m.

Final Friday

Semifinal winners, 6 p.m.

Class AAAA

Semifinals Wednesday

Hopkins (16-0) vs. Chaska (16-0), 7 p.m.

Rosemount (19-3) vs. Centennial (21-1), 9 p.m.

Final Friday

Semifinal winners, 9 p.m.