MINNEAPOLIS - With three sophomores in his starting lineup, Minneota girls' basketball head coach Chad Johnston pointed out all season that the Vikings were a young team. It's something that fans need to be reminded of from time to time because the team's youth is largely imperceptible.
In Saturday's Class A girls' basketball state tournament championship game, the three starting sophomores combined for 54 of the team's 61 points. The bright lights and the big stage were neither too bright nor too big for them, in part because they're battle-tested more so than many upperclassmen on other squads.
Minneota has a combined record of 84-6 over the past three seasons, all of which culminated with state tournament appearances, so each Viking, no matter what age, knows how to win and what it takes to be successful. And it's not just in basketball. Many of the players are also on the volleyball team, which has gone to four straight state tournaments.
"Minneota has a history of coming to the state tournament but I'm glad we're building a routine, and it's a good routine," said sophomore guard Payton Boerboom, who is also on the volleyball team. "I just hope we can keep rolling with it with volleyball and basketball and hopefully we can keep coming home with medals around our necks. But it takes all the hard work and dedication from our coaches and players."
Junior Molly Hennen has been to the state tournament in basketball and volleyball every year she's been in high school. Minneota has been to state nine times overall in volleyball, finishing in third place each of the past three seasons. Prior to Saturday, the school's only team title in a girls' sport was the 2006 volleyball team's championship during a perfect season.
The Vikings have only recently experienced a string of succes in basketball, with three of their four state appearances coming in the last three years. Their previous-best finish was fourth place in 2005.
"I never thought my first state championship would be for basketball," Hennen said. "I always pictured it being volleyball because we'd always make it to third place for volleyball, but in basketball we made it to the championship, so that's amazing."
Like his players, Johnston also brings state experience from another sport. He coached the Minneota football team to a state title in 2009 and a semifinal appearance in 2010. To achieve similar success in two sports while working with two different groups of kids is something Johnston said he's greatly enjoyed.
"We joked about it years ago, being a football guy, that in 2005 it was girls' basketball that brought me to the state tournament before football ever did," Johnston said. "That was one thing I said was I never thought girls' basketball would have taken me to the state tournament before football. Obviously football got me my first state title, but they're all special in their own certain way and I've been fortunate to be able to do this a long time and fortunate enough to be back.
"This is a special thing. You can never take anything for granted. This is special because it's with a group of people that's very deserving and it doesn't matter what sport it's in. I'm privileged to be doing what I'm doing, I'm very blessed to be able to work with the kids that I get to work with and this is just a wonderful experience for me, too."
The Minneota girls' basketball team loses just two seniors (reserves Hanna Prellwitz and Kelsea Tolk), so it would be easy to imagine the Vikings getting back to Target Center next year and adding more hardware. Star forward Taylor Reiss, who had a stellar 30-point, 12-rebound performance in Saturday's title game, is just a sophomore and continues to turn heads with her play.
But after earning All-Tournament Team honors and getting interviewed by several media members after winning her first state championship, Reiss remained humble when speaking of the team's future. She realizes that though Minneota has made state tournament appearances seem commonplace, trips to St. Paul and Minneapolis must always be earned.
"It's great having all this success but we can't let it get to our heads," Reiss said. "We have to keep working hard because just because we've been here before doesn't mean that we're going to make it the next time. We just have to keep working harder. That's how we got here, we worked really hard."