For as many wins as the Alexandria boys and girls basketball programs have racked up in recent years, it’s been a while since both have shared a season where they hoisted section championship trophies at the same time.
Winning championships isn’t easy even when a team seems primed to do so. Alexandria girls coach Wendy Kohler has over 600 wins to her name. She has won 10 of those section championships, and she appreciates every one of them as their own unique experience.
“Getting to the state tournament is something that never gets old and you can never take it for granted,” Kohler said after the Cardinals’ most recent Section 8AAA title this past March. “You may never get back.”
The Alexandria boys basketball program has been to seven state tournaments, with its last coming in 2014. Three times Alexandria’s basketball teams have won section championships in the same season (1997, 2000, 2002). While nothing is a given with new athletes emerging each year in high school athletics, both programs entered the first day of practice on Monday looking like contenders, maybe favorites, in Section 8AAA.
The Alexandria girls won last year’s section title with a victory over Bemidji, and the boys came close to matching them. That 72-70 loss to St. Cloud Apollo that came down to an Eagles’ bucket in the closing seconds still resonates for a lot of guys on this year’s team.
“I think all the guys who are back think about it every day we’re in the gym,” Alexandria junior Erik Hedstrom said. “They were a great team, but we want to come back this year and finish. Finish every play, every game.”
St. Cloud Apollo was a senior-laden group last winter. Eagles’ big man Thomas Diew was a sophomore, but fellow double-digit scorers in Puoch Dobuol, Chang Hoth and Michael Gravelle are all graduated seniors.
Alexandria returns a good core to build around in Colton Roderick, Erik Hedstrom and Kristen Hoskins, all guys who averaged double figures in points a season ago and were catalysts in the Cardinals’ run to the section title game.
“We just really want to work together and build off each other’s strengths,” Hedstrom said. “It’s not just me, Colton and Kristen. The junior class is huge. We have a lot of different guys on the team who can bring different things to the table.”
The task for the Cardinals will be having those guys step into big roles left vacant by four seniors, including two starters in forward Ethan Patience and guard Carrson Jones. Head coach Forrest Witt said there are about 10 players who have a chance to fill important spots.
“In my opinion, the most important factor every season is how guys develop and adapt to their role on the team,” Witt said. “We graduated four players last season. Each of them embraced and developed within their unique role at a high level. We'll see who capitalizes on the opportunities as we progress throughout this season.”
Hedstrom knows all about that process after capitalizing on an expanded role last season. He scored 11.8 points-per game in his first season getting big minutes on varsity, while knocking down 45% of his threes (54-of-118).
“I give credit to my older brother, Anders. He graduated the year before, and freshman year I learned a lot,” Hedstrom said. “Not just from Anders, but Trey Hoepner and all the seniors. You have to look at the guys you think are ahead of you and try to match what they do. Challenge yourself to go up against them every day in practice to make yourself and them better.”
The Alexandria girls have a big group of seniors to build around that have no shortage of varsity experience. The Cardinals did graduate key contributors from last year in Mia McGrane, Ella Grove and Summer Gerhardt, but each year brings in a new wave of leaders for this team. Seven returning senior letter winners in Cate Bloom, Jaya Hatlestad, Mataya Hoelscher, Myah Kremer, Lilly Horn, Alayna Strand and Izzy Rasmusen help take on that role.
“We are all very motivated because we’ve been playing together since we were little,” Bloom said. “We’ve been waiting so long for us just to be seniors and get this opportunity to play.”
Kohler ran her team through a fast-paced practice on Monday. It started by spacing out in a huge circle together as they all wore matching black practice jerseys and black masks. The masks are part of the expanded safety protocols in place that players have to wear during practices and competition due to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely something we have to get used to,” Kremer said. “But I think we’re all good with it as long as we get to play and be with each other.”
Alexandria is regularly the hunted team in the 8AAA field in girls basketball, especially after Fergus Falls moved down to Class AA a year ago.
“I think we’ll definitely have to watch out for Detroit Lakes because they didn’t lose anybody,” Bloom said. “We’re ready for them though. We’re just excited.”
The playoff format has not been officially set, but the Minnesota State High School League has indicated that it wants to host state tournaments in some capacity this winter after having just section tournaments during the fall.
If those state tournaments are in place, that’s the ultimate goal for both the Alexandria boys and girls programs. But both say that would be the end of a long process. A process they were eager to get started with on Monday night.
“We would obviously like to win the section, but I think more of our mindset is just getting better every day,” Hedstrom said. “Just challenging each other and coming together as a team. We’re a different team than we were last year. Last year, we had some success, but this is a new team, new obstacles. We just have to come together every day and get better.”