Prep girls basketball: Cloquet vying for first trip to state since 2004
Top-seed Grand Rapids and No. 2 seed Cloquet will meet for the third team this season in the Section 7AAA championship at Hermantown.
CLOQUET — With a trip to the Class AAA state tournament on the line, top-seeded Grand Rapids and No. 2 seed Cloquet will meet for a third time this season in the Section 7AAA finals, Thursday, March 10, at Hermantown High School.
The Thunderhawks (24-3) are making their second straight appearance in the section championship game. After COVID prevented them from competing in the state tournament in 2020, the team made it back in 2021 for their eighth appearance in program history.
The Lumberjacks (20-7) are vying for their first trip to state since 2004, which also marks the last time the team competed in the section final.
Grand Rapids swept the season series with wins of 60-42 and 69-63, respectively, but Cloquet coach Heather Young said her team has grown significantly since their most recent meeting, with their defense showing the most improvement.
“We only got Rapids to turn the ball over 11 times. We had some deflections in there, but I feel like our defense has really stepped up these last couple weeks of the season,” Young said. “We saw it really in Bemidji when the girls just really came on, and then it just kind of flowed for the remainder of the season and into Hermantown as well.”
Grand Rapids coach Kristine Hamling said her team lacked the vigor that she’s come to expect out of her club in their most recent meeting.
“We weren’t as intense playing defense as we would’ve hoped, so we’ve kind of cleaned that up a little bit,” Hamling said. “(We) know that we have to play with more intensity to be able to succeed and be able to finish out the game strong.”
Cloquet is led by senior Maddie Young, who has taken her game to the next level this season, averaging 17 points per game. Young is one of five seniors on the team’s roster, many of whom played on the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 teams which combined for nine wins over the two seasons.
Fellow seniors on the Lumberjacks roster include starting point guard Katie Turner, forwards Caley Kruse, Justice Paro and Addison Thompson.
The team’s ascension to the top of the section after being near the bottom in previous years has them eager for Thursday’s matchup.
“This has been a journey for our girls,” Young said. “It just speaks volumes about these girls as athletes and just as competitors — just never giving up and always striving to get better. Because here we are two years later playing for a section championship to possibly go to state. It’s just crazy, and so we have a lot of excitement, and yet we’re trying to keep it normal, as normal as possible.”
The Thunderhawks enter this season’s section final with no seniors on the roster after the graduation of their lone upperclassmen from last year’s tournament team in Jenny Bowman. What Grand Rapids lacks in senior leadership, it more than makes up for in big game experience, however, as the club returns all of its key players, including 2021 DNT All-Area Team selection Taryn Hamling, who is averaging 22 points per game.
Coach Hamling acknowledged that having prior experience in big games will go a long way in helping them play with less nerves.
“Last year there were a lot of girls that hadn’t played in a game like that before, so you could tell that the nerves that they had kind of impacted (them),” she said. “They were a little tense when they were playing, so it just took awhile for them to relax a little bit. So this year going into it I think their nerves will be a little less apparent, and they’ll just be a little more calm and play looser.”
Both teams enter Thursday night’s matchup with extended winning streaks in tow. The Lumberjacks have earned victories in five of their last six games, including a 68-51 toppling of No. 3 seed Hermantown. Cloquet was led by junior Alexa Snesrud, who finished with a game-high 21 points in the contest. Off the bench, sophomore Ava Carlson provided 14 points in the winning effort.
Young is hopeful that the team can continue to receive contributions from the bench on both ends of the floor.
“If we don’t have our bench involved or coming onto the floor just as geared (up) as the five starters were, we’re in trouble,” Young said. “And that’s been the good thing about this crew is any given night we know we’re going to get points from certain players, but to have those kids come off the bench and not miss a beat and contribute..are so important to our success.”
Grand Rapids enters Thursday’s contest with 14 wins in their last 15 games after defeating its latest opponent, No. 4 seed North Branch, in an 81-51 final. After the strong performance on both ends of the floor, the Thunderhawks remain hard at work in practice, shoring up both facets of their game in hopes of making it back to the state tournament.
“We’re focusing a lot on our defense, boxing out (and) just keeping great positioning when we are playing defense,” Coach Hamling said. “Then of course running through our offenses, and just kind of cleaning up some things.”
Tip-off for Thursday’s contest is slated for 7 p.m.