State tournament preview: Giving it a better shot

For a team to put everything it has into getting to a certain point, then not performing up to its potential once it gets there is a disheartening scenario.

Such has been the case for the Minneota Vikings – two years in a row.

Making the Class A girls’ state tournament each of the past two seasons, the Vikings have been bounced in the first round both years due to shaky shooting performances in Minneapolis. In 2011, Minneota shot just 25 percent but still managed to push eventual state champion Maranatha Christian to the limit in a six-point loss. Then last season, the Vikings took 65 shots from the field to Ada-Borup’s 29 but were limited to 35 percent shooting in a four-point defeat.

Back at state for the third year in a row, the Vikings hope the rims at Williams Arena are more forgiving this time as they look to put an end to their first-round frustrations and advance to play at the Target Center. Putting the past behind them would be ideal, but head coach Chad Johnston knows it won’t be easy.

“You have to be a little worried that it’s in the back of their heads,” Johnston said of his team’s shooting woes at state. “You get up there at the start of the game, when you usually have the jitters anyways, and if you miss a couple of shots, will that start to play mind games with us? Do you go, ‘Here we go again’? Or are we able to put that out of our heads and continue to play the ballgame?

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about the psychological part of it, but this group really seems to be determined to get past that point and get themselves into the Target Center.”

The Vikings (27-2 overall) enter the tournament as the fourth-ranked team in the state. The team they’ll face in the first round at 1 p.m. Thursday is Mountain Iron-Buhl (28-2), which is No. 1 in Class A and defeated two-time defending champion Maranatha Christian during the regular season.

Johnston said the Rangers are a very similar team to the Vikings in that they have a strong inside-outside game, like to put pressure on the ball on defense and have many good shooters. Minneota played Mountain Iron-Buhl during the summer and won by double figures. Johnston wasn’t coaching Minneota in the game, but he was watching.

Mountain Iron-Buhl, the champion of Section 7A, is led in scoring by a pair of young guards who aren’t even in high school yet. Chelsea Mason and Mya Buffetta have scored 460 and 328 points, respectively, this season. Mason also leads the squad with 133 steals.

By watching them on the court, Johnston said there would be no way to tell Mason and Buffetta are both still in junior high.

“Those girls have been playing for a couple of years now and they are aggressive eighth-graders,” he said. “There’s a part of you that likes to think you can go after them and maybe try to rattle those eighth-graders and press them and get them to turn the ball over, but they’re not those kind of eighth-graders. They’re not timid. They will come after you and that’s that outside part of their game that makes them so good.”

The inside game that makes the Rangers good is the trio of 6-foot-2 forward Allie Knuti and twin sisters Kathy and Laura Ostman, who are both around 6-foot tall. All three have scored 230-plus points this season and, though they don’t all play at the same time, all three will have to contend down low with Minneota standout sophomore Taylor Reiss, who averages 21.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.

Reiss certainly showed up last season for the Vikings when they were at state. She scored 27 points on 12 of 18 shooting with 17 rebounds, including 12 on the offensive end, in the loss to Ada-Borup.

Minneota will also need scoring from its perimeter players to get past the Rangers, and those players are coming off a one of the Vikings’ best all-around performances of the season in a 72-46 win over Wabasso in the Section 3A final. Sophomore guard Emily Stienessen hit four 3-pointers and had 17 points in the game and the rest of the team also shot well in the dominant performance. As a team, Minneota is shooting 48 percent from the field for the season.

Shooting is something that Johnston is concerned about entering the game, but hustle and energy are two things he knows will be there when his team steps onto the raised floor at “The Barn”. The Vikings have a great talent in Reiss, but Johnston said it has been their teamwork that has led them to the success they have attained. And it will be teamwork that will lead them to whatever success they achieve this year at state.

“They’ve got a great work ethic,” Johnston said. “This group has been a very focused group since junior high, a very talented group, a very successful group. Obviously there’s a lot of athleticism on the team.

“I wouldn’t say we have a true great leader. Obviously Shelby (Corbin) does a great job as a floor leader, but the strength of this team is that they are a team. There’s not that one girl who stands out as being a leader like a Kelsey Hennen last year, but I think this is a group that lets their action speak for them.”