The Bemidji girls basketball team impressed during the Section 8-3A semifinals on March 23 in upsetting second-seeded Detroit Lakes in a 67-51 game, but Alexandria rarely finds itself on the wrong end of an upset.

Year after year, the Cardinals enter every game with a focused approach that leads to consistent winning seasons. Alexandria is used to playing in pressure-packed big games, and there was no way this year’s senior-laden group was going to fall short of its ultimate goal as the top seed in the section.

The Cardinals (17-4) won their second straight 8-3A championship on Friday night, beating third-seeded Bemidji (10-11) again after also beating the Lumberjacks for the title last year. This will be the 11th state-tournament appearance for Alexandria and fourth since the 2017 season.

Alexandria's Jaya Hatlestad (right) celebrates near midcourt with teammate Mataya Hoelscher after Hatlestad hit a three in the second half of the Cardinals' win over Bemidji in the Section 8-3A championship. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Jaya Hatlestad (right) celebrates near midcourt with teammate Mataya Hoelscher after Hatlestad hit a three in the second half of the Cardinals' win over Bemidji in the Section 8-3A championship. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“I’ve dreamed of this ever since I was a little girl, and we worked our tails off this year in the offseason and in season,” Alexandria guard Jaya Hatlestad said of winning the section title as a senior. “This group of six seniors is just so special. I just can’t find the words to describe it. To win this game in the last game on our home court with the uncertainty of this season, being able to have this feeling is amazing.”

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Senior forward Lilly Horn laughed when it was suggested that this team doesn’t seem to ever get rattled in pressure games like this.

“Don’t get me wrong, we get nervous,” Horn said. “We get very, very nervous, but I think our nerves drive us a little more...I feel like this year we were doubted a lot by other teams. We lost three big seniors in Mia (McGrane), Ella (Grove) and Summer (Gerhardt ), but we came back and us six seniors have done amazing things. We couldn’t do it without our JV and every single person on the bench and these coaches. It’s just that feeling of needing to prove people wrong is what’s driving us.”

Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler talks with senior Lilly Horn as Horn comes out of the game in the second half on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler talks with senior Lilly Horn as Horn comes out of the game in the second half on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Bemidji tied the game at 24-24 before the Cardinals closed the first half on a 6-0 run when Mataya Hoelscher and Horn knocked down threes. That was the beginning of the end for Bemidji as Alexandria took control in the second half.

Senior guard Jaya Hatlestad had a personal 5-0 run on a three and a runner in the lane that extended the Cardinals’ advantage to double digits. Horn and Hatlestad hit back-to-back threes that made it a 46-28 lead with 12:11 left.

Horn missed a few shots early that she often makes, but she finished with a game-high 19 points. She hit four of Alexandria’s eight total threes, while Hatlestad added three triples and 12 points, and Mataya Hoelscher had nine points.

Alexandria senior Mataya Hoelscher goes into her shot after coming around a screen in the first half on Friday night in Alexandria's win in the Section 8-3A title game. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria senior Mataya Hoelscher goes into her shot after coming around a screen in the first half on Friday night in Alexandria's win in the Section 8-3A title game. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“I knew with the passes that my teammates give me and the chances I get on the court that they’d fall eventually,” Horn said. “We’re always taught to keep shooting. I know I can shoot, and I know any of these girls can shoot. As long as we keep getting offensive looks, some of them have to drop.”

This Alexandria team does not have the size in the post that some of its previous state-tournament teams have had, but the Cardinals make up for that with shooting and quickness that has benefitted them on both ends of the court.

“We all bring different aspects to this team. We all play our roles so well,” Hatlestad said. “Everyone can shoot, everyone can run, everyone can make plays and play defense. Everyone contributes, and I think we have the best connection that I’ve ever played with. We have so much fun, and we’re pushing each other.”

Cate Bloom looks for a teammate as she drives along the baseline against Bemidji on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Cate Bloom looks for a teammate as she drives along the baseline against Bemidji on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The Cardinals now turn their attention to the Class AAA state quarterfinals at a regional location that will be determined on Saturday. Winners of quarterfinal games move on to the semifinals on April 6 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, with the title game set for April 9.

Alexandria lost their first game at state a year ago but bounced back to defeat Red Wing before the tournament was called off due to the pandemic. A year later, the Cardinals are eager for another chance to see how they stack up against the state’s best.

“We’re just trying to do better than we have in the past,” Horn said. “We’re trying to make it past the first round and see what we can do, especially with this new set up...We wanted the conference championship. We got that. We wanted a section championship. We got that. Now it’s just time to push through state.”

Alexandria senior Myah Kremer gets into the lane against the defense of Bemidji's Alexie Tatro on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria senior Myah Kremer gets into the lane against the defense of Bemidji's Alexie Tatro on Friday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

ALEXANDRIA 30 37 - 67

BEMIDJI 24 29 - 53

ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Jaya Hatlestad - 12; Morgan Jones - 10; Myah Kremer - 2; Cate Bloom - 7; Mataya Hoelscher - 9; Alayna Strand - 6; Lilly Horn - 19; Hadley Thul - 2

BEMIDJI SCORING - Emily Wade - 11; Jody Pemberton - 16; Kate Hildenbrand - 3; Alexie Tatro - 3; Katelyn Milbrandt - 7; Beth Bolte - 12; Emma Huberty - 1