by Eric Oslund
It was youth night at in the Elk River High School gym Tuesday night when the girls basketball team hosted Blaine. The Elks welcomed in all the young in-house teams and honored them for what they were able to accomplish during their season.
The young, future Elks were able to help out the varsity players in the pregame introductions, handing out high-5’s as the girls ran by, and also got to show off their skills during halftime. It was a time all the young basketball players clearly enjoyed, but it’s also a night that the varsity players also look forward to every year.
“They enjoy anytime the kids come in the gym,” head coach Jeremy Digiovanni said of his team. “We had a team come in last night and watch practice, and the whole energy of practice is different because they knew those kids were there and they wanted to give them a good impression. I think they remember what it was like to be those kids looking up at the previous players and one day saying, ‘Hey, I want to play up there,’ and now it’s their chance to give back. I think they take a lot of pride in that.”
With all the young kids coming in and showing off their skills, it only seemed fitting that some of the younger varsity players got to do the same during the game.
All year long, the Elks have been led by their seniors – Ava Kramer, Kelsie Cox, Sidney Wentland, Danielle Lachmiller and Gabi Haack. That was still the case, as Kramer led the team in scoring with 23 points, followed by Wentland (18) and Haack (10). But Cox has been out with a fractured thumb, which meant there was room for younger players to step up.
Digiovanni has been working on building depth at the guard position in Cox’s absence and he looked towards a lot of young, up-and-coming players to fill the void Tuesday night. Junior Madison Leuthold has been a rotational player and gotten ample playing time all season long, but Tuesday night she was joined by freshmen Lydia Haack and Alexa Engebretson.
Both of those two freshmen guards have been impressing the coaching staff at the JV level, so Digiovanni wanted to get their feet wet a little more on varsity.
“They’re all smart basketball players. Athletically, they fit in well at the varsity level,” Digiovanni began. “I think it’s just getting them used to the speed and physicality of the game. If you ever watch them on JV, they do a lot of really nice things and we just have to get them to make that step up to the varsity level.”
Depth has always been the biggest question mark for the Elks this season, but games like the one they had against Blaine will help improve that. These young players will likely be counted on at one point or another come tournament time, and it will be important for them to not be over-whelmed by the moment. That’s why it is important for them to get as much varsity experience as they can before that.
“They each bring their own strengths to the table, on the defensive side or on the offensive side, so we just try to find some combinations that work,” Digiovanni said of his young players. “Hopefully, when Kelsie comes back, the experience those kids are getting is going to help down the stretch because they’re gaining confidence, gaining that experience that, come tournament time, will be valuable.”