Any team that wins a state championship has to have talented players.
That’s a prerequisite, but there are a lot of teams with talent that don’t win at a high level. There is no doubt that the Alexandria girls basketball team of 1996-97 had a lot of great players. It was evident in their 25-3 overall record, but there’s more to what made that group winners.
“The biggest thing about that team is they were competitors,” Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler said. “That team was filled with intense competitors, and a lot of them. We lost the first game of the season that year against Detroit Lakes, and that just set the tone. They dug in and went on a mission after that.”
Fearless was another word Kohler used often in talking about that group.
“I think for our team, we knew we were good together,” Sarah (Ekdahl) Geris said. “We’re competitive, we’re strong. We had such scrappy players -- broken noses, bloody noses, bruises -- it didn’t matter. We just had a really good mix of players where we didn’t think losing was an option. We weren’t going down without a fight.”
That mentality showed up over and over again on their way to a Class AAA state championship.
Kohler has guided 10 teams to the state tournament, but that group in 1997 lays claim as the lone one that came back with a title.
It took a competitive edge to get the job done through the entire tournament.
A 52-43 win over Minneapolis North in the championship is what shows up in the record books, but for those along for the ride during that run, that win against the Polars might not even be the most memorable game of the tournament.
“I thought we were a team of destiny. I could feel it”
Alexandria’s quarterfinal game came against a higher-ranked Hibbing team.
At the time, there was no neutral site in the state opener. Alexandria traveled to play on the Bluejackets’ home court with a trip to Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota on the line.
Hibbing was led by Shyla McKibbon that year, and she was dominant. McKibbon scored 25 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, almost single-handedly willing her team to a win.
“I’ll never forget it,” Kohler said. “When she finally fouled out, I remember (assistant coach) Bob Cunniff looking at me going, ‘Good, she’s out. Now we got a chance.’ She was such a tough match-up.”
The Cardinals still found a way to take a 41-32 lead into the fourth quarter. That lead was at four with almost five seconds left before a McGibbon’s basket made it 48-46.
Hibbing got a steal on the inbounds, and McGibbon was fouled. She went to the free-throw line and sank both shots to send the game to overtime tied at 48.
It was all Bluejackets to start the extra session. Hibbing led by six with almost a minute left when Alexandria guard Shelli (Schoeneck) Hawkinson hit a three to make it 60-57. Janell Spoden added two free throws for the Cardinals before they were forced to foul. Hibbing made one of two shots at the stripe, setting up a wild final few seconds.
“I remember just screaming the play out as loud as I could because we didn’t have timeouts,” Kohler said.
Alexandria grabbed the rebound off the missed free throw and got the ball quickly upcourt. Hawkinson came off the left wing with her team down by two and drilled a three with 3.7 seconds left. It secured a 62-61 win that sent the Cardinals into the semifinals.
“It’s moments and wins like that, I don’t think any of us doubted that we could do it, but once you actually do it, it gives you a whole different level of confidence,” Hawkinson said. “That was kind of the start of, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t just think we can compete with these teams. We think we can beat them.’ It seems like a simple mindset change, but that changes the whole demeanor in which you approach things.”
Alexandria was led by some great seniors, but Hawkinson hit huge shots as a sophomore for that group. She had a team-high 17 points against Hibbing, which included five made threes.
“Honestly, being a sophomore in that situation, our juniors and seniors set such great examples,” Hawkinson said. “They were always so positive and supportive that I never felt like a sophomore. I felt like a teammate. That cohesiveness and that feeling you have in those situations, you don’t think about, ‘I’m a sophomore. I shouldn’t be taking this shot.’ I think some of that was just because of the camaraderie we had as a team.”
To this day, Hawkinson said that win over Hibbing is the game her dad always talks about. Players and coaches alike credit that win for propelling them through the rest of the tournament.
“It was incredible, and I think everyone was just stunned,” Kohler said. “Our girls were in shock. Their girls were in shock. From there, I thought we were a team of destiny. I could just feel it.”
Taking down Goliath
Alexandria wasn’t going to have a letdown after that emotional win.
The Cardinals, who came into the tournament ranked sixth in state, fed off a packed crowd at Williams Arena in the semifinals and beat Fridley, 49-39. Geris had 19 points, nine rebounds and three assists to lead the way, while Shannon Diedrich and Kate Heydt had nine points, and Hawkinson added eight.
“I knew we were eventually going to have to play Minneapolis North to win it all,” Kohler said. “I just knew our girls weren’t afraid of anybody.”
Minneapolis North started a dominant run in the mid-1990s by winning five Class AAA titles and finishing second four other times from 1997-2009.
“They had been just killing everybody, and we got down right away because of the speed of the game and the defensive pressure that they brought,” Kohler said. “It was just intense, and we weren’t attacking the rim.”
Minneapolis North (26-2) jumped out to a 14-5 lead. Tamara Moore controlled the game in the first quarter with 14 points. A Cardinals team that prided itself on outworking every opponent and being fearless was playing timid.
“I called a timeout and Kate Heydt and Sarah Ekdahl pretty much took over that huddle,” Kohler said. “They were just like, ‘What are you guys so scared of?’ They lit everybody up, and we came out and just went crazy. That team had such strong, fearless leadership.”
That was a role Geris and other seniors on that team loved to play. Nearly 23 years later, Geris remembers vividly that timeout and how that moment required someone to speak up.
“Between Kate and I, we were fearless. We were both scrappy and fought to the end,” Geris said. “I remember being down and knowing like, ‘Let’s take this team down. Let’s show them that we can fight as well as they can. We can rebound better. We’re better at defense.’ I think a lot of it in that huddle was, ‘Let’s turn this game around right now. Show them what we have.’ We had great players, and we had that composure. We just needed to find it.”
Alexandria ran off eight straight points to pull within 21-18, and things were close from that point on. Geris made a bucket at the rim and was fouled with 5:43 left. She made the free throw to give her team a 37-34 lead. The Cardinals never trailed again as their defense and 11 straight points from the free-throw line to end the game secured a 52-43, title-clinching win.
Showing the way
Moore led the Polars as one of the best players in the state regardless of class. She went on to be an All-Big Ten player at the University of Wisconsin and played six seasons in the WNBA. In April, she was hired as the men’s head coach for Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minn., making her the only woman head coach for a men’s college team in the country right now.
After Moore’s 14-point first quarter in the title game in 1997, Alexandria held her to just three points the rest of the way. The Cardinals’ depth took over for them as Geris had 19 points, Hawkinson added 15 and Heydt finished with 10.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is Minneapolis North and beating them,” Hawkinson said. “You always knew they were a big powerhouse. Going in, you felt like the underdog, and to be able to come out on top is probably one of the coolest feelings in my career.”
It was a win and a season that that group of players and coaches takes great pride in. Some are still in the Alexandria community with daughters of their own now coming through youth basketball for the Cardinals. Someday, they will be part of a perennially-powerful program that the 1997 team helped create.
“It’s so cool because those little girls need to understand what amazing moms they have,” Kohler said. “Such confident, strong competitors. Now they are raising confident, strong little girls, and that to me is so exciting to see. That team has set the legacy for their own families and for all the other little girls coming up in the program. They just kind of showed the way.”