Alexandria’s six seniors cement at least a share of the CLC title
Brainerd got off to a fast start, but the Cardinals' depth eventually wore the Warriors down as Alexandria improved to 14-3 and 12-1 in the Central Lakes Conference to clinch at least a share of the conference title heading into a game at Fergus Falls on Thursday.
Longtime Alexandria girls basketball coach Wendy Kohler can vividly remember watching her current group of seniors when they were 4th-graders in the traveling youth league and how even back then they seemed to gel so well together.
“I remember sitting there going, ‘That group is going to be something special.’ They just all complement each other and make each other really, really tough,” Kohler said. “They continue to improve and execute, and they’re just such a coachable group.”
The current six seniors -- Jaya Hatlestad, Myah Kremer, Cate Bloom, Mataya Hoelscher, Alayna Strand and Lilly Horn -- were not going to lose their last home game of the regular season. Not on Senior Night.
Alexandria (14-3) was pushed by Brainerd (11-5, 8-5 CLC) early on Monday, but those six seniors combined to score every single point in a 62-48 win over the Warriors.
“I don’t think we ever thought we were going to lose,” Kremer said after Alexandria fell behind 18-11 early. “We always thought, ‘We’ll come back. We can do this.’ I don’t think anyone ever got down. Because it was Senior Night, that was an even bigger motivator to do it for all of us and win as a team.”
Making the night even more special for the Cardinals was that the win wrapped up at least a share of the Central Lakes Conference championship for the first time since 2017. This group has been a part of three second-place finishes in the CLC, but they now sit at 12-1 in conference play with just one game left.
Willmar entered Monday at 11-2 in the CLC, but lost to Fergus Falls 57-52 to fall to 11-3. The Otters (13-3) are now 9-2 in the CLC and can finish with a tie in the loss column if they beat Alexandria on Thursday night. Fergus Falls can’t catch the Cardinals in the win column after not playing as many CLC games as Alexandria.
“I think this group of seniors said, ‘We’re going to do this. This is our year, and we’ve been waiting for this since third grade,’” Hatlestad said of the CLC title. “We’ve played with a ton of confidence, a ton of grit and we were the team that could get it done.”
A lot of programs that Alexandria plays have one or two individual players who might be able to keep them in games early. That was the case again with Brainerd as senior guard Ally Brzezinski had a game-high 18 points and junior Myah Nelson added 12.
The Cardinals’ depth is eventually too much on most occasions. Horn (15), Hoelscher (14), Bloom (11) and Kremer (10) all finished in double figures, while Hatlestad added eight with a couple of big second-half threes, and Strand chipped in four points.
“We trust everyone to take a shot,” Kremer said. “It’s so much more fun when you can spread the wealth with those points. We’re just as excited if you make a shot or if you pass it to get a teammate a shot, or if you set the screen to get the person to make a shot.”
Threes have been a big part of their game, and eight triples were plenty to get the job done on Monday behind another stingy defensive effort.
“Guarding each other in practice, it’s just so difficult because everybody is a shooter,” Hatlestad said. “Everyone can drill them right in your face. Everybody comes every single night to shoot and is so confident that if you have a wide open shot, take it.”
Horn is the newcomer of this senior group after playing in the Cardinals’ program for a couple seasons now after moving from Brainerd as a junior. She had big moments last year, but has looked even more comfortable as her senior year has progressed. Horn knocked down three triples against the Warriors to pace the team.
“I think she’s become more comfortable with the system,” Kohler said. “There’s a lot to learn and take in. It’s not the easiest system to play in. There’s a lot of expectations offensively and defensively...She’s a really great shooter. She’s put a lot of time in and is fearless, and it’s nice to see her have that confidence.”
This whole team is playing with plenty of confidence after a seventh-straight win heading into another big game at Fergus Falls in the regular-season finale on Thursday. The Otters have not lost since its 53-50 loss at Alexandria on Feb. 4.
Kohler likes the way her team is playing with a few things yet to clean up before the playoffs. That final game at Fergus Falls will have a playoff feel as the Cardinals try to put the finishing touches on getting the top seed in the Section 8-3A field.
“We’re just always hungry for another win, and this will just boost us more to go get it in the playoffs,” Kremer said. “To go into playoffs with a win would be huge, especially against a team like Fergus.”
ALEXANDRIA 26 36 - 62
BRAINERD 23 25 - 48
ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Jaya Hatlestad - 8; Myah Kremer - 10; Cate Bloom - 11; Mataya Hoelscher - 14; Alayna Strand - 4; Lilly Horn - 15
BRAINERD SCORING - Kate Stadum - 7; Myah Nelson - 12; Meghan Smith - 6; Ally Brzezinski - 18; Emma Tautges - 5