by Eric Oslund
A lot of people were curious to see how the 2016-17 year would go for the Elk River girls basketball team. There was an odd combination of stability and question marks as they had a core group of players returning for their senior year, who all had a lot of experience playing at the varsity level, but they also had a new head coach and lost their all-state center Abi Scheid due to graduation.
It didn’t take long for the Elks to silence a lot of their doubters, though, as their first game of the season came against Lakeville North. They are consistently one of the top teams in the state and would eventually make the state tournament.
Lakeville North also has multiple players coming in over 6-2, where the Elks’ tallest starters were 5-10, but the Elks were still able to come away with a 61-47 win, a victory that really set a tone for the remainder of the season.
“I think we all took a different role this year. We played like more together than we ever have,” senior forward Sidney Wentland said when asked about how the team rebounded after losing Scheid. “This group of seniors was so close, we just knew each other so much, and we knew each other on the court as well. It just flowed so well.”
Wentland, was joined by Ava Kramer, Kelsie Cox, Danielle Lachmiller and Gabi Haack as the five senior starters for the Elks. They are a group who has been working with one another since they had been playing traveling-league basketball, and they all knew that this was their chance to do something special.
To do something that had never been done before in the city of Elk River, bring home a state title in girls basketball history.
They would finish the regular season a perfect 26-0, but it wasn’t always easy. Six of their regular season wins were by six points or less, but no matter what unfavorable circumstances they faced, these girls never let anything rattle them.
The team, as a whole, was always able to stay calm and collected in the face of adversity, and it was really because of the senior leadership they had and they amount of time these five starters had spent at the varsity level.
“I think it’s our character on the floor and off the floor, and our team chemistry,” Haack said when asked what makes their team so resilient. “We all just love each other so much. We just play hard for each other. If one of us makes a mistake we all pick her up. We play with team chemistry a lot.”
All the adversity the Elks faced throughout the regular season may have helped them out in the long run as they prepared to head into the section tournament, and then state – where games would only be getting tougher.
They were rewarded the No. 1 seed in their section and started out by cruising to a 74-29 victory over St. Cloud Tech. They followed that up by defeating Maple Grove 61-48 in the semifinals and were then set to take on Moorhead in the finals, one game from state.
The Elks got off to a fast start, but the Spuds were able to work their way back into the game and even take an eight-point lead early in the second half. The Elks were in a bit of a tail spin, but once again it was these seniors that were able to settle things down and get the team back on track.
“When Moorhead took that lead I was kind of like, ‘Oh no, this is not happening for the fourth year in a row,’” Haack said after the team’s game against Moorhead. “We were getting a little down, but at one point we were like, ‘We need to turn this around because we are not losing again.’”
Lachmiller was really the player that changed the course of the game when the Elks took the ball into the offensive end and she drained a three pointer from the corner. From that point on the game was in their hands as they went on to win 84-73, securing their first state tournament berth since 2006.
The girls had advanced to a place where no one on their team had any experience, not even the group of seniors who had been through so much together. The stage was bigger, the lights were brighter, the stakes were higher, but the players were on a mission and weren’t about to let anything stand in their way.
The Elks went up against White Bear Lake in their first game of the state tournament, and their resolve would be tested once again. They trailed by one point at halftime after their opponents hit a three pointer at the buzzer. The girl retook the lead, but only held on 44-42 with 5:24 remaining after their opponents went on an 8-0 run. But they never panicked and went on to advance to the semifinals with a 52-44 victory.
They faced a familiar opponent in Lakeville North in the semifinals, and once again the Elks would be forced to overcome a lot of adversity. It was a game that came down to the final five seconds, and some close calls, but once again it was the Elks who prevailed, winning 57-56.
“It was Elk River’s time,” said Lakeville North’s head coach Shelly Clemons after the game. “I think the game was meant for them.”
When a team has a run like the one the Elks were on up to that point in time, they will always need a little help. A bounce here, a call there, every little thing helps a team in all these tight games, but no matter what the circumstance was, the Elks stayed strong.
They would need that resolve they were becoming now for in their next game, though, as they were about to go up against their toughest test of the season – Hopkins. Hopkins was the only other undefeated team in Class AAAA, and were the only team ranked ahead of Elk River all season long.
Both of them advanced to the state finals and were set to square off in a historic game, as it was the first time that two undefeated teams met in the state championship game since Class AAAA was established.
“You could tell early in the season that they were driven, they were on a mission and we just kept battling, kept improving,” Elk River head coach Jeremy Digiovanni said of his team. “We never back down from any challenge, and that was never more evident than it was tonight against, arguably, the powerhouse team in the state, Hopkins.”
The state finals match up was one that truly lived up to the hype.
Hopkins jumped out to a lead to start the game, but the Elks were able to battle back and take a lead of their own, and that’s how it played out for the remainder of their time on the court. These two teams battled back-and-forth all the way until the clock hit zero.
“It kind of, it fuels me,” Wentland said when asked how it is when an opponent continues to keep the game close. “I know that we can be up on them, so as soon as they get within a couple points, it fuels me up. It gives me more energy because we need to be on top.”
When the clock finally struck 0:00 it was the Elks on top, winning 64-60. It was hard for the girls to put their feelings of that moment into words right after the game, as some of them were still in shock. But after seeing the way they screamed and embraced one another on the court, there was really only one way to describe the feeling.
“It was pure happiness,” Lachmiller said afterwards. “Just pure joy with all the girls I’ve been playing with. It’s an amazing feeling.”
In a season that was surrounded by uncertainty at the start, this group of seniors was able to lead their team to a perfect 32-0 record and the program’s first state title. A storybook ending for a historic season.