Loss to Minnehaha team does not diminish all Alexandria accomplished, and why this might be the start of something special for this program
A loaded Minnehaha Academy team won its fourth straight state championship between Class 2A and now 3A as Alexandria finishes one of the best seasons in program history with a runner-up finish. How the Cardinals got here, and why they feel there is potential to use this as a springboard to big things in the future.
Minnehaha Academy has put itself right up there as a top high school boys basketball program in Minnesota regardless of class size in recent years in a state that is filled with prep talent.
The Redhawks are loaded with players who will go on to play at various levels of Division I college basketball. Jalen Suggs, a 2020 point guard, led Minnehaha a year ago before helping Gonzaga to the NCAA championship game this winter.
Current Redhawks senior center Chet Holmgren will follow that path in the near future as a projected college star before moving on to the NBA, and Minnehaha Academy has many others around him on this team who are high-level college recruits themselves.
Alexandria coaches and players knew how tall of a task it would be to beat the Redhawks in the Class 3A state championship game on Saturday night at the Target Center, but they were eager for the opportunity. The Cardinals stuck close through the early minutes. Erik Hedstrom’s three made it an 11-10 game, but Minnehaha (20-1) has too many weapons.
The Redhawks won 80-29 to secure a fourth straight state championship and first at the Class 3A level. The prior three in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were at Class AA, while the 2020 state tournament was not played due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was just playing against some big dudes. I don’t know,” Alexandria senior Colton Roderick said. “They were all really talented, and you couldn’t get inside at all because Chet was in there who would block everything. It’s just crazy.”
Holmgren did a little bit of everything with 18 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 blocks, and brothers Hercy and Mercy Miller were equally as impactful.
Hercy, a senior, finished with 24 points before he heads to Tennessee State to play collegiately next year. Mercy, a freshman guard who already has Division I offers from the University of Minnesota and others, hit three first-half threes to open up the game and finished with 15 points.
Alexandria’s Erik Hedstrom had a team-high 10 points and 7 rebounds. The Redhawks held the Cardinals to 12-of-57 shooting overall, including 4-of-28 from three.
“We just didn’t hit enough perimeter shots, but I loved our fight,” Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said. “I loved our mindset going in. The kids did what they did all year. They played hard. They played with fight, and they played together. We just ran into a really good team.”
The makings of a special season
It was not long after this game ended that the Cardinals were able to appreciate how special this season was. Players posed for a photo on the Target Center floor with their runner-up trophy and walked off the court with smiles on their faces. It’s a group that tied Alexandria’s best finish ever at the state tournament after also finishing as the runner-up in 1943.
“We won a CLC championship, a section championship. Just a class act group of guys,” Witt said. “I heard from a lot of people in Alexandria and outside of the area in just the general Minnesota basketball community how they were really impressed by how hard our guys played and how great of kids they are. They could tell that by how they played and how they worked together as teammates. That stuff is really important.”
Year after year, Witt preaches the importance of guys accepting roles within a team in order to create a winning atmosphere.
“I think they reinforced with me that team aspect and just how valuable every single person is,” Witt said. “They came to practice every day to work hard, give what they had and get a little bit better than the day before. It was a joy to coach them. Just a selfless, hardworking group, unified group. They reinvigorated the joy and passion and togetherness of what we are striving for in our basketball program.”
Not everybody is going to score 15 points a night. Great teams have guys who relish how important they can be by defending, rebounding, passing and just being a good teammate.
“There was 100% selflessness and acceptance of roles with this group,” Witt said. “Somebody who might come watch a game on a given night might come and say, ‘Well, Wyatt Odland, he’s not a real good player.’ But when you watch Wyatt and you understand the value he brings to our team, it’s exceptional. He takes over a charge a game. He’s a 40% three-point shooter. Undersized every single night out.
“When you see that day in and day out, we understand that value completely. That goes down the line -- Carter Steffensmeier’s role. Brady McCoy’s role, who didn’t get a lot of minutes as a senior. He had a positive attitude every single day, and if his minutes were there, they were. Those little things make the difference on how a team is going to perform.”
A monkey off their back
Alexandria finished 22-2 and set what it hopes is a new narrative for this program.
There has been some heartbreaking playoff losses in recent years. It started in 2016 when Nathan Rund led Fergus Falls to a win in the section title game after Alexandria led by 10 with 3:41 left. There was another similar run for Sartell in the section semifinals in 2019 and a two-point loss to St. Cloud Apollo in the 2020 section championship.
“I think we just kind of proved that we can make it,” Roderick said. “The last couple years, we’ve kind of choked. We just proved that we are good enough, and it’s not always cities teams who are the good teams. A lot of times it’s the smaller schools, but I know in the state tournament the last couple years they always seem to have to play the top seed first just because they’re not a city school. We kind of set the record straight and set a new standard for the team. It will be really good coming up.”
The Cardinals will largely be back intact next season. Alexandria started four juniors in Odland, Steffensmeier, Hedstrom and Kristen Hoskins. Center Kobe Jenson became a huge piece of this team after moving to Alexandria from Oregon his senior year, and the Cardinals have to prove they can replicate this year’s success without a multi-talented player like Roderick. His basketball career will take him to Bemidji State, but he is confident that this team can be really good again next winter.
“I feel like they’re capable of another deep run in state,” Roderick said. “They can win the section next year. They just have a lot of talent coming back. It will be hard to replace some of us...but if they can keep that chemistry going, kind of like this year, it will be hard to stop them.”
Building on the momentum
The key will be building on this momentum.
Witt has loved hearing from former players as they watched this season unfold. His message to them is that they started this. The Cardinals have had solid, winning teams in recent years, and this year’s group grew up around it and took another step in the process.
One thing that stands out to Roderick about how they did that is the confidence that every player had in each other. There were two games that came down to needing game-winning shots -- a 62-61 overtime win at Bemidji where Jenson hit a corner three , and the 66-64 win over Richfield in the state semifinals where Myles Sansted did the same . Both those guys are bench players who came in each night and played with a starter’s mentality.
“That just shows you how deep we were. It’s pretty crazy,” Roderick said. “This year throughout the year, I just could trust everyone on the team with the ball. I was fine with anyone taking a last shot. At Bemidji, it’s Kobe. Against Richfield, it’s Myles. We just had a lot of trust in each other, and we were fine with whatever outcome because of that trust.”
The Cardinals’ junior varsity team did not drop a game all season and was consistently praised by players and Witt for preparing the varsity team for what it would see on game nights. The 9th-grade group was equally successful.
Winning at such a high level like this does not come easy. Future trips to the state championship game are certainly not guaranteed, but there is talent to build around and a blueprint to follow.
“As we look across our program, there’s an excitement for basketball and being a part of this,” Witt said. “There’s an excitement for wanting to do what these guys are doing. It’s all very real, and that’s the exciting thing. Some of these things we’ve talked about for years are coming to fruition. It’s not going to be easy, and that’s the message every day.”
MINNEHAHA ACADEMY 36 44 - 80
ALEXANDRIA 20 9 - 29
TOTALS - Alexandria - FG - 12-57; Three-point FG - 4-28; FT - 1-4; Rebounds - 28; Assists - 8; Turnovers - 11; Minnehaha Academy - FG - 32-58; Three-point FG - 9-23; FT - 7-13; Rebounds - 48; Assists - 19; Turnovers - 8
ALEXANDRIA -- Carter Steffensmeier - 4 rebounds; Wyatt Odland - 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal; Kristen Hoskins - 7 points, 3 assists, 1 block, 1 steal; Erik Hedstrom - 10 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block; Colton Roderick - 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists; Myles Sansted - 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist; Peter Sansted - 1 rebound; Brady McCoy - 2 rebounds; Zach Gundberg - 1 rebound; Grayson Grove - 1 rebound; Turner Haar - 1 steal; Kobe Jenson - 2 rebounds; Will Heydt - 2 points
MINNEHAHA LEADERS -- Isaiah Davis - 8 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists; Hercy Miller - 24 points, , 3 steals, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block; Mercy Miller - 15 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 2 steals; Chet Holmgren - 18 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks; Donovan Smith - 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist; Jayven Williamson - 2 points, 3 rebounds; Chase Carter - 2 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks; Uyiosa Omorodion - 3 points; Trent Finney - 2 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist