Alexandria girls basketball coach Wendy Kohler has racked up more than 600 wins in her 30-plus year career, and a characteristic that defines her coaching style is intense.
Her players often adopt that same mindset. The state-title-winning team of 1996-97 that beat Minneapolis North 52-43 in the Class AAA championship certainly did.
“A lot of us had played together for a number of years, and we had a great collection of girls who just had that competitive drive,” Sarah (Ekdahl) Geris, a senior on that team, said. “Whether that came from us collectively, I also think that a lot of that is coach Kohler. Her emotion and her drive and her competitiveness really kind of dripped into all of us too.”
That group prided itself on being relentless on the court. Kohler called them a team of destiny after they edged Hibbing 62-61 in overtime on a buzzer-beating three from Shelli (Schoeneck) Hawkinson in the state quarterfinals. A full story on the Cardinals’ tournament run can be seen in the July 1 issue of the Echo Press. Here is more from coach Kohler, Geris and Hawkinson on that season that stands as the lone championship in program history.
Q: When you found a way to rally from six down late in overtime at Hibbing in the state quarterfinals to win it on a three in the closing seconds, what did that do for this team going forward in those next two games?
KOHLER: I knew we were eventually going to have to play Minneapolis North to win it all. I just knew our girls weren’t afraid of anybody. I knew if we could go there and beat a really good Hibbing team on the road in their backyard, I knew this team could go all the way. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew they would battle.
Q: You had such good upperclassmen on that team, and then you had Shelli Schoeneck as a sophomore who made huge plays in that tournament. What stood out about her as a young player that season?
KOHLER: I think Shelli was oblivious to how good she really was. We had such strong senior leaders who took her under their wing, and she could just do her thing. Shelli was 5-feet, 11-inches, long and lanky, defender, and she just kept improving as the season went on with the encouragement of those seniors.
She just played. She had fun. Shelli would come out of the huddle in the most intense moments, flip my ponytail and go, ‘We got it.’ She was a different type of competitor. Very relaxed, but she would tear your heart out in the biggest moments.
Q: Where did that carefree approach come from and your ability to stay relaxed in big moments?
SHELLI (SCHOENECK) HAWKINSON: It was my personality and how I approach things. It was, go in, play my role, and I looked up to the seniors. For me, in any situation, it was finding my role in that game, that practice, that moment. That’s why I think when you get a team like we had, everybody complements each other. There’s no internal competition. You have a team competitiveness, which I think plays a huge role in teams being successful down the stretch.
Q: You found yourself down by double digits early against a power like Minneapolis North in the title game. Do you remember feeling any doubt at that moment, or was there always a belief that you were OK?
HAWKINSON: I don’t know if doubt is the right word. But I think when you get to a spot where you’re down, obviously you have to dig so much deeper to get out of that mindset of, ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ That’s why when I look back to the seniors and leaders on that team, they led exactly the way they needed to in that situation. The work ethic and the tenacity that those girls had, it’s contagious...Kate (Heydt), she’s just a firecracker. If she couldn’t motivate you, you couldn’t be motivated.
Q: This is a girls basketball program in Alexandria that has seen a lot of success since that season, making 10 state tournaments overall now. How much pride do you take in being that lone team that brought back a championship?
HAWKINSON: I have always respected and absolutely loved Wendy as a coach. She was such a great mentor for me, and it does not surprise me one bit that she continues to have the success she does. She has the passion for the game, and I think she has a really unique way of transitioning that passion to her players. They’re receptive of it, and they really buy into that Cardinal pride.
It is pretty cool to be the only team that’s won that state championship, but they have been so close and had so many talented teams. I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity. I take pride in that, and I appreciate what that opportunity gave me.
Q: When you think back on that tournament run, what are some of the first memories that come back to you?
SARAH (EKDAHL) GERIS: Being able to play at Williams Arena on the raised floor, that’s one of the bigger memories of that state tournament. It was a packed house. All the people who came down to support us, and it’s just fun being from a smaller community and playing against those bigger teams. We were the underdogs. I think we came in ranked sixth, so nobody expected us to do as well as we did, but we kind of always knew we had an awesome team.
Q: Defense has been a staple of this program for years, and just looking at the numbers, it seems like it was for your team too. How important was your defense to what you did?
GERIS: I think for us, it was the mixture of having solid defense (from everyone) -- scrappy players, girls who went after every possible loose ball. That was the mindset. For us, defense was almost our best offense. Our physicalness and our ability to be scrappier than the other team and ability to have better positioning, that played a very important part.