By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
For six seniors on the St. Michael-Albertville girls’ basketball team, a trip to the section finals championship game is a thing of the norm.
A 65-31 quarterfinal win on Feb. 26 over Brainerd was followed by a 65-44 victory March 2 in the semifinals against St. Cloud Tech. It marks the fifth consecutive season the Knights will play in the championship game.
Senior guard Natalie Van Wyhe has been part of all five runs and her all-around play of 17 points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals helped pave the way in STMA’s quarterfinal home win Feb. 26 over the Warriors.
It was the final home game for STMA’s most experienced varsity player and she said afterwards that it was a bittersweet moment.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet, but it’s pretty sad,” said Van Wyhe, who joins Karissa Pazen, Jordan Hansen, Makenzie Bebo, Nicole Westrum and Bre Grube as STMA’s six seniors. “It’s been a great four years playing with them. It will be difficult once the season’s over. We bond so well.”
Fortunately for Van Wyhe and the Knights, the victory over Brainerd prolonged their season and STMA head coach Kent Hamre had the dubious task of trying to bring his top-seeded squad into the No. 4 seeds own backyard.
The neutral site of Halenbeck Hall at St. Cloud State University is five blocks from the high school of St. Cloud Tech – last Saturday’s Section 8, 4-A semifinal opponent.
“I sent an email out to our fans and told them we would be right in Tech’s backyard and this will be their home court advantage,” Hamre said.
While the majority of the crowd was sporting the Tech colors of orange and black, it was a senior wearing the colors of blue and gold that made the most noise early on.
STMA enjoyed an 8-0 lead from the start on the strength of two successful 3-point shots from Hansen. STMA extended their first-half lead to as big as 14 points before the Tigers could muster an answer.
“It set the tone for everybody,” said Hansen, on hitting a pair of early key buckets. “It definitely set the tone for me. It gave me a lot of confidence. I feel like being a senior and role model that if I have confidence and feel good about what’s going on, it reflects on everybody else. It could have anybody though.”
Leading 23-9, St. Cloud Tech came out of a timeout and went on a 13-4 scoring run, closing the gap to 27-22 at the half.
Instead of coming out dejected, the Knights used the break to their favor and any momentum gained was instantly turned around as STMA outscored the Tigers 38-22 in the final 18 minutes to win 65-44.
“When I came into the locker room at the half, I could tell by the look in the girls that was going to be their only run,” Hamre said. “We were going to shut everything else out.”
Junior forward Erin Autio scored nine of her 12 points in the second half and Autio also finished with nine rebounds.
“I’m so excited,” Autio said. “We didn’t think we would beat this team by this much. We had some negative energy at the end of the first half, but we came out in the second half with positive energy and on fire. We kicked some butt.”
Van Wyhe again had a stellar game. She finished with 12 points, eight assists and six steals. Freshman Sydney Tracy led all scorers with 15 points. Hansen and sophomore Bobbi Brendefur each finished with nine.
The Knights as a team had 19 steals and created 25 Tech turnovers.
“Every single day coach (Steph) Lahr works with us on defense,” Hansen said. “We hate it. It’s so intense. But it paid off and at the end of the game it got to Tech and it showed.”
STMA (23-5) will play Elk River (16-12) at 6 p.m. this Friday night in the championship game at St. John’s University in Collegeville.
The Knights are looking to get back to state for the fifth time in eight seasons. Earlier this season, STMA defeated the Elks 57-49. Elk River head coach Reed Caouette said he knows his girls will have their hands full.
“St. Michael is a really good team. They are a well oiled machine offensively and they play really hard defensively,” said Caouette, after his Elks defeated Rogers 64-45. “Both teams have improved since the last meeting. We’ll have to handle their pressure. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will walk away with the win. They’re tough.”