Summer basketball is often about individuals improving themselves by working out and going their separate ways on AAU teams, but there are chances for school programs to keep working together, as well.
One of those for the Alexandria girls came in the form of the Breakdown Sports USA summer state tournament in Maple Grove the weekend of July 14.
This event features some of the teams that are considered to be top programs from each of the state high school league's four class levels. Alexandria played in the Class AAA tournament and came away with a championship after going 3-0.
"As a team, we want to make progress as a unit. We want to move forward together as a unit so once the season starts we can kick off right where we left off," Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler said of her goals for this group during the summer. "Every year you graduate kids who played really important roles and took a lot of those minutes, so summertime is where they can play and make mistakes, settle in and figure things out where you're really not playing for keeps like you are in the regular season. The more minutes they can get under their belt, the more progress we can make as a unit and the further along we'll be when the season starts."
Kohler coached the team at the summer state tournament and liked what she saw from these girls over the weekend. Alexandria beat teams from Grand Rapids and Austin in the first two contests before taking a 42-39 game against Red Wing in overtime during the championship. Soon-to-be junior guard Jaya Hatlestad hit a late runner to help put the Wingers away.
This will be a bit of a new-look team for the Cardinals during the winter season, and that's been the case even more so this summer. Key contributors from last year's 22-5 team have graduated, including starters McKenzie Duwenhoegger, Kaye Paschka and Emily Jones. Alexandria has also played without players like Summer Gerhardt, Mia McGrane and Cate Bloom during most team events this summer. All three have dealt with injuries, with Gerhardt just getting on the court in limited minutes at the state tournament and the other two not playing.
"We've had a challenging summer playing without some of the kids who can really help us and our other kids have really stepped up and played tough," Kohler said. "They've played really good defense and our offense is starting to come around. In a way, it's been good for us. Last year, we dominated the entire summer and then didn't make it to state, which was our huge goal. I think it's good for these guys to have to find their way around challenges. These kids are learning. Playing without (McKenzie) and Kaye and Jones is a big adjustment."
Kohler likes the depth of this current group of Cardinals. She listed off a huge group of players who she believes are ready to take on expanded roles.
"We're going to be as deep as we've ever been," Kohler said. "We will extend the court defensively and push offensively. This crew shoots the ball well, too. They're just unselfish, and they get the ball where it needs to be. Some kids are really growing. Ella Grove is just a beast. She's just grown. She's coming off playing with the Minnesota Fury, which is one of the best clubs in the state. She looks good."
Grove is coming off a junior season where she led Alexandria in scoring with 349 points. She shared the Cardinals' Offensive Player of the Year Award with Jones last winter and was an All-Central Lakes Conference guard.
Grove will be a catalyst as a senior this coming season in Alexandria. The Cardinals also have a nucleus of players who have an opportunity now to take on bigger roles with the departure of those three senior starters from last winter.
Included in the mix will be former Brainerd guard Lilly Horn, who's family moved to the Alexandria area after Horn played as a sophomore for the Warriors last season.
"She's a good player," Kohler said. "She can play a 1-4 (position), a perimeter kid who can play a four, big strong kid. She shoots the ball extremely well, is aggressive offensively, tough rebounder."
Kohler always makes it a point to remind players in this program that faces may change but the expectations never do. The Cardinals expect to compete for section titles every year and that goal remains the same for the 2019-20 season.
"In the summer, the main focus is this is where they have to grow individually with their skill set," Kohler said. "Are you a better player when you walked out of the gym today than you were when you walked in? That has to be your mindset. We want them to be in a lot of different activities, but when they come in to work on their game, we want them to make sure they're always moving forward."