NRHEG basketball girls repeat as Section 2AA champions
WE’RE GOING BACK! — NRHEG girls’ basketball players celebrate after winning Section 2AA championship at Minnesota State-Mankato Friday night, earning a second straight trip to the state tournament. Among the players pictured are Paige Overgaard, Maddie Wagner, Katie Cole, Marnie Wagner, Abby Crabtree and Jade Schultz. The Panthers open the state tournament Wednesday at 8 p.m. against Pelican Rapids at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. (Star Eagle photo by Chris Schlaak)
By JIM LUTGENS
What’s better than going to the state tournament?
How about going two years in a row?
That’s what the NRHEG girls’ basketball team is doing after Carlie Wagner and company — behind a large and loud fan following — dismantled St. Peter 96-61 for the Section 2AA championship at Minnesota State-Mankato Friday night.
The Panthers, third in last year’s state tournament behind a record-setting performance by Wagner, will face Section 8AA champion Pelican Rapids at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Rated No. 2 in the state in Class AA, the Panthers take a 29-1 record and 27-game winning streak to state.
The Panthers and coach John Schultz weren’t thinking about that on Friday, though. They, along with much of the NRHEG community, simply celebrated the moment and soaked it all in.
And Schultz, who along with the Panthers has dealt with high expectations all season, was able to breathe easy for a while.
“It’s like a huge weight off our shoulders,” he said.
The players were more enthusiastic.
“Oh man,” said Wagner. “I just want to say I’m really proud of my teammates; they worked really hard. We were ready to go and I was proud of them for it.”
Wagner, a junior who has verbally committed to play basketball at the University of Minnesota, continued to make the NRHEG area proud, scoring 49 points — one shy of her single-game school record — as the Panthers took control early in the opening half and turned the section title game into a blowout.
Wagner gave credit to the Panther faithful.
“Our fans are incredible,” she said. “We have the best fan base in the state. They’re the ones that kept us going. They’re awesome.”
Junior Jade Schultz, Coach Schultz’s daughter, agreed, adding, “This is the best experience ever. This year seemed surreal. I thought the game would be much closer than it was. We just played very well together as a team.”
Wagner continued to lead the way. In addition to her 49 points, she totaled 10 assists, seven rebounds and six steals while going 3-for-5 on three-pointers and 12-for-13 at the free-throw line.
“She’s already ready for the next level,” said Coach Schultz. “The Maryland assistant coach told me she could start for them right now, and they’re a pretty good team.”
But, as with any championship team, a star needs a strong supporting cast and the Panthers have one. They’re not deep, using seven players on a regular basis, giving the team and its state title quest a Hoosiers-like feel.
“You can’t go into a game with a player like Carlie and not have other offensive threats,” said Schultz. “The kids right now have their spots, and when they’re on, it opens us up even more. Offensively, for her to get those fast-break baskets, number one you have to defend. The way our trap works, if one kid doesn’t do their job, the other team is going to score. It’s kind of like living on a cliff. Our defense sets her up, and her lay-ups are our team points. It’s her job to finish it off.”
Wagner agreed. Defense is what’s different about this year’s Panthers.
“I think we’re a lot better defensive team,” she said. “We’re way more aggressive, a lot more in your face, and we’re quicker than we were last year too.”
Which of course means a little different attitude this year as they head to Minneapolis.
“Last year, it was like, let’s get there and see what it’s like,” said Wagner. “This year, we’ve been there, we’ve done it, we can just go out and play our ball.”
Schultz said getting to state once in a lifetime is a rare feat. Two years in a row is difficult to fathom.
“It’s been on my bucket list, always has been,” said the coach. “This is my 27th year of coaching various sports. One thing I always wanted to do was get to a state tournament in something. Last year, I was able to cross it off my bucket list. To do it two years in a row is really something.”