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Girls Basketball: Cards make big, unexpected splash

The Willmar girls basketball team was not necessarily expected to make a big splash in 2015-16.The Cardinals were coming off a 12-16 season and lost two all-conference players, one a 1,000-point scorer and another who stepped into an immediate st...

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Willmar guard Grace Sawyer drives to the basket against St. Cloud Tech in a Dec. 10, 2015 Central Lakes Conference game at Willmar High School. Sawyer is part of a balanced team that is in contention for a CLC championship. Jacob Kuyvenhoven/Tribune.

The Willmar girls basketball team was not necessarily expected to make a big splash in 2015-16.
The Cardinals were coming off a 12-16 season and lost two all-conference players, one a 1,000-point scorer and another who stepped into an immediate starring role at Ridgewater College, .
“We didn’t have someone who could just step in and take over scoring all of those points” said Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson.
“Going into the year, we were wondering how we could manage that, and the answer turned out to be that everyone’s gonna score”
An apt description. Not a single Cardinal is averaging double-digit points per game on the season, but the entire starting lineup is averaging at least six.
And the results speak for themselves. Willmar is 15-7 with an 11-2 Central Lakes Conference record, on pace for their best season since 2009-10. They are in second place in the Central Lakes Conference, and with a 6-1 record against Section 5AAA opponents, they have secured the top seed of the section tournament.
Despite the team’s balance, a lot of these missing scoring and ball-handling duties have fallen on Heidi Sellmann and Grace Sawyer, two juniors having breakout seasons, .
Sellmann leads the team with 9.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest, and Sawyer is second on the team in scoring and averaging nearly six free throw attempts per game (and connecting on a team-high 78 percent of them) despite playing just over 15 minutes per game, lowest of any starter.
But although she is third on the team in scoring and second rebounding, Carlson and the Cards say the main focus of their attack is 6’4 senior center Lexi Orlowski.
“Our normal philosophy going into a game is to use Lexi as our number one look, our number one advantage, and to get her going early” said Carlson. “There just aren’t many teams that can match up with six-foot-four, and she attracts the defense inside and allows everybody else to score.”
Orlowski’s teammates have noticed this same effect. “If we pass it into the post and they double-team, we have the shooters around the three-point line to make them pay” said senior shooting guard Courtney Hanson, who leads the team in three-pointers made and is second in assists.
“And if we make those, that’s going to open the post back up.”
Attempting over a quarter of their shots from deep, the Cards back up their commitment to an inside-out attack on the court. They draw an impressive 24 foul shots a game and nearly half their made field goals come off assists.
Orlowski knows the offense leans on her, but also acknowledges an arguably larger part of her role is anchoring the defense. She is averaging a sterling 2.6 blocks per game and was just named CLC Defensive Player of the Week for the week of February 1.
“I know my job is to control the paint. I’m looking to score or pass to a shooter when I have the ball, and on defense I have to block shots and rebound” said Orlowski. “If I can do my job, I know everybody else can do theirs.”
Losing the amount of scoring from last year the Cards did also shifted the locker room dynamics. The most important difference for the players this year? A return to what made basketball enjoyable in the first place.
“I feel like we work together better this year, we move the ball, we have more trust in each other” said Hanson. “A lot of us seniors have stepped up as leaders, because we all want to be a good team and make it to the state tournament.”
Orlowski echoes the goal of playing deep into the postseason. “This has just been a really fun year. We’ve been looking from the beginning at winning the conference and playing in the state tournament, and it’s just been exciting.”
Although the team has hit a bit of a bump in the road lately with two consecutive losses after a six-game win streak, that goal still looks well within reach. Willmar has locked up the number one seed in the section, and is just one game behind Alexandria in the CLC.
“In this day and age, everyone knows where we’re at, what the QRF rankings are and everything” said Carlson of the competitive atmosphere and the readily-available online rankings and standings. “So what I’ve been preaching is we just have to keep getting better.”
Which is not to say he isn’t eagerly awaiting the postseason. “Getting that first round bye, that’s a really good spot for us. There are three teams that are super-competitive and could easily win the section.”
“It’s really cool to be a section where there isn’t any powerhouse, where we have as good a chance as anyone of advancing.”
Also, the Cards’ regular season-ending game against Alexandria on the road on February 26 is going to be a huge game in determining the final CLC standings, provided the Cards can make it the next couple conference games without a loss.
“The biggest thing for that game is probably our transition defense” said Carlson, whose Cardinals lost 53-39 to Alexandria on January 16. “We gave up probably 20 points on their fast break, uncontested layups. You can’t give them those points and expect to win, so that’s going to be our main focus.”
Willmar has two remaining home games in the regular season, Friday against Brainerd and next Tuesday against New Ulm.

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Willmar head coach Dustin Carlson works the sidelines during a Jan. 29 game against St. Cloud Apollo at Willmar High School. In his fourth year as head coach, Carlson has the team poised for their best season since 2009-10. Jacob Kuyvenhoven/Tribune.

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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