No Fluke [UPDATED]Published 10:37am Thursday, February 28, 2013 Updated 10:39am Thursday, February 28, 2013
After last season’s amazing state run that saw the Fergus Falls Otter girls basketball team take third in the Class AAA state tournament, the girls amazing run couldn’t get any better.
Or could it?
The offseason saw several departures including dominant center Mariah Monke, three ball aficionado Sydney Schultz and defensive specialist Haylie Zenner to graduation and head coach Josh Mohagen left to coach the M State Spartans Men’s basketball team.
Several questions swirled through the Otter faithful’s heads. Who would replace coach Mohagen? Can junior starters Brianna Rasmusson and Anna Monke ready fellow teammates for a second state run? Are the Otters best seasons behind them?
The answers may surprise you.
After a whirlwind swept through the city in June, the Otters found themselves with a well established head coach in Brad Strand, a former all-state player in his daughter Bailey and determination and drive from key contributors on last season’s team as they stepped into their roles as starters.
“We knew that we had some big holes to fill,” Coach Strand said. “I’m always optimistic, I knew that we had a special team and I had hoped we be pretty good.”
Good doesn’t do justice to how great the Otter girls have been so far this season.
A 26-0 regular season record, averaging 27 points more than their opponent, breaking records, recording milestones and carrying the number one state ranking the entire season were just a few things the girls have celebrated.
In those games, only five times have the Otters foes got to within 10 points and only four other games where the Fergus girls unable to defeat their opponents by 20 or more.
The two returning starters from last season squad, Rasmusson and Monke have continued to play high caliber ball, while also stepping into a leadership role.
Ramusson reached the milestones of a 1,000 points, while also breaking school records for assists in a season and a career.
“We had a lot of people step up this year,” Ramusson said. “Over the past few years we have gotten more comfortable with each other and we can see the floor a lot better.”
With the absence of her sister in the paint, Monke has stepped into the role and flourished as a go-to player under the board.
“There is a lot of more pressure put on Hannah, Kristin and myself since Mariah has left,” Monke said. “So, you can see we are kind of feeling the heat she did last year, but its a good heat.”
First year starters, senior Hannah Swenson and junior Devonie Smith have allowed the Otters not to miss a beat in hopes of returning to state.
“I feel like I have to be more focused,” Swenson said on becoming a starter. “The seniors last year took care of us, but I try to provide leadership when I’m on the floor.”
The interesting piece added to the Fergus girls team is Bailey Strand. An all-state player at Pelican Rapids last year, Strand has added yet another offensive weapon to a roster that legitimately could see five players in double figures each game. Strand has also passed the 1,000 point milestone midway through the year.
“I am really excited to be a part of this team,” Strand said. “I’ve played with some of the girls before, so its been pretty easy to develop chemistry.”
The Otters also have the valuable sixth and seventh players in junior Kristin Traiser and sophomore Kathryn Sawtell that add valuable minutes on the floor.
Traiser is a tough post presence that is a great scoring option, while also a good defender.
“I prepare for coming on the bench,” Traiser said. “It’s a little bit hard sometimes, but I flow into it.”
Sawtell may not find her name in the stat line for points, but is a shutdown defender that Coach Strand is extremely confident in.
In their first game of the Section 8AAA playoffs, the Otters electrified a home crowd on the way to a 68-34 stomping of the East Grand Forks Green Wave.
This isn’t Strand’s first go around with an undefeated squad. During the 2008-09 season, his Pelican Rapids boys team finished the year 33-0 on the way to a state title. So what do both teams have in common?
“Both teams are long and athletic. They have a good combination of inside and outside play and the mentality of how hard they come to work everyday,” Strand added.
The transition for Strand has been easier than expected as the hard work and dedication of the girls has allowed the coach to transition his style of play to their game.
“I think the only difference is that the bus rides home smell better,” Strand joked.
The Otters will be back in action Saturday evening as they take on Sartell-St. Stephen in the section semi-finals held at the Minnesota State University Moorhead at 6 p.m.