Boys basketball: Cardinals excited about the future after fourth-place finish at state
The Cardinals sent their seniors off with a finish as one of the state's best and gave themselves something to build on heading to next season.
ST. PAUL - The Alexandria boys basketball team earned an opportunity to play on the final day of the state tournament, a feat that not many teams in the state accomplish.
And in Saturday’s Class AAA third-place game, both Alexandria and the Orono Spartans battled tough as neither team held a large lead.
A key 8-0 run late in the second half gave Orono the lead, and, eventually, the 67-63 win at the Gangelhoff Center on the campus of Concordia University-St. Paul.
Alexandria went 25-6 this season and finished as one of the best teams in the state and aims to build off of this top-four finish moving forward.
“This was one of the better seasons we’ve had since I’ve been here, and we feel like we took a positive step for our program,” Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said. “We want to continue and build on this. It was a really positive season where a lot of memories were made, and now there’s something to continue to build off of.”
Neither team led by more than seven points in Saturday's game, and when Orono did lead by seven, 64-57, with less than 45 seconds left, Alexandria sophomore forward Chase Thompson knocked down a three-pointer to cut Orono’s lead to four.
Orono (26-6) got its lead back up to six, 66-60, with eight seconds left, but Alexandria went down swinging as senior guard Bryce Paffrath knocked down a three-pointer with seconds left to make it a one-possession game.
The Spartans sealed the win with a made free throw on the other end to seal the four-point win.
Alexandria kept Orono’s Isaiah Hagen in check for most of the first half, as he was limited to seven points in the first 18 minutes of play. He scored 15 points in the second half to finish with a game-high 22 points. Kyle Kallenbach finished second on the team in scoring as he finished with 14 points.
Both teams established their defense early on Saturday, and Orono held a slim 24-23 lead at halftime.
Junior forward Grayson Grove had 19 points for Alexandria, while Thompson had 16, and junior guard Bralyn Steffensmeier had 14.
Paffrath is one of four seniors, along with forward Jacob Balcome, guard Jaxon Schoenrock, and guard Trevin Hoepner, on this Alexandria team who helped lay a foundation for the program moving forward.
“I thought they had great leadership,” Witt said. “Seniors are a big part of what you do, no matter how much they’re playing just with their presence, having the experience of knowing how to do things, and understanding the expectations. Trevin, Jaxon, Jacob, and Bryce did tremendous jobs in their specific roles and were positive leaders for this team.”
These four seniors on the team played a big role in leading the program to one of its best finishes.
Alexandria has now finished in the top four in the last two out of three state tournaments. Alexandria earned runner-up in the 2021 state tournament.
This team was mostly different from the 2021 team, built off of a runner-up finish in the 2022 Section 8AAA tournament to win the 2023 section title and place fourth at the 2023 MSHSL Class AAA State Tournament.
“We had good chemistry,” Witt said. “It took us a while to figure things out with mixing veterans and underclassmen and how our roles were going to shake out, but I was really happy with how they competed. I thought our seniors did a tremendous job of teaching the guys how to do things the right way day in and day out.”
This season, Alexandria had a nice 1-2 combo in the post with Grove, who has NCAA DI offers from Central Arkansas, Illinois State, and St. Thomas, along with Thompson, who made a name for himself this season. They also had solid starters and reliable in Schoenrock, Hoepner, and Steffensmeier and nice pieces which came off of the bench.
Alexandria has five juniors, three sophomores, and five freshmen on its varsity team who should be back next season.
“I’m extremely excited for what we have back, and I’m looking forward to next season and the immediate future,” Witt said. “We have a lot of guys that have invested a lot into the game of basketball, and they want to get better. We need to improve in some areas that will allow us to compete against the upper-echelon teams and beat those teams on a consistent basis. That’ll be an emphasis for us moving forward.”
With this finish and the Alexandria girls’ fourth-place finish in their Class AAA state tournament, the excitement around basketball in the community is high.
“Both teams had great success this season and have a good core returning,” Witt said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement for the future. A lot of young kids want to be a part of the program, and they envision themselves as a part of this and being that person, five, six, seven, eight, nine years down the road for themselves.”
Both the Alexandria boys and girls earned good wins in the state quarterfinals, gave a good test to their opponents in the semifinals, and came within a couple of points of winning the third-place game.
Witt is excited to see where his returning players will grow the most individually in the offseason.
“From an individual skill development standpoint, we all have some things to improve on,” Witt said. “I think for us as a team, we have to improve in our half-court offense. We need to work on our movement, pinpointing and identifying some places on the offensive end that we can exploit on the offensive end, but really, a lot of the offseason work comes down to individual skill development.”
Alexandria - 23 40 - 63
Orono - 24 43 - 67
ALEXANDRIA SCORING - Grayson Grove, 19; Chase Thompson, 16; Jaxon Schoenrock, 4; Bralyn Steffensmeier, 10; Bryce Paffrath, 3; Mason Witt, 4; Dawson Roderick, 7
ORONO PLAYER SCORING - Brady Wooley, 2; Riley Nelson, 6; Grant Gunderson, 6; Isaiah Hagen, 22; Kyle Kallenbach, 14; Zach Close, 6; Nolan Groves, 3; Jhett Ledfried, 8