2012-13 Winter Preview: Park girls basketball team takes another run
This winter, while a lot of the load to reach a first-ever state tournament may fall on standout guards Larissa Lurken and Sydney Lamberty, Park head girls basketball coach Stephanie Tolkinen said she feels it will be up to the Wolfpack's supporting cast to take them to the Promised Land.
This year presents the best opportunity for Park to reach the state tournament since the 2007-08 season when the Wolfpack went 25-3 and were upset by Eastview in the Section 3AAA championship game.
Last year, Park again fell to Eastview in the Section 3AAA final, 52-47, ending a 20-9 season. Tolkinen said her coaching staff and the players on the Wolfpack aren't hiding the fact this year's goal is to finally reach state.
"We have the team and we have the tools that are giving us the best chance to get to a state tournament this year," said Tolkinen, who is entering her ninth year as head coach and 14th overall at Park. "We're hoping for a repeat performance except with us coming out on the winning end this year. But, a lot of things need to happen between now and then."
This season will give Park fans a final chance to watch the dynamic duo of Lurken and Lamberty together on the hardwood.
Lurken, a senior, and Lamberty, a junior, each played their first-ever varsity game at the same time -- at the beginning of 2009-10 season and have been starters for the Wolfpack the past three years. As a freshman in 2009-10, Lurken led the Wolfpack in scoring at 11.5 points per game. Lamberty, an eighth-grader that season, was second at 10.3 points per game. Last year, Lamberty led the team in scoring with 19 points per game. Lurken, who recently committed to play Division 1 basketball for Kent State next fall, was second in scoring at 16.9 points per game. In addition to earning all-conference honors last season, Lurken and Lamberty also both hit the 1,000-point milestone during the same week, becoming the fourth and fifth players in the history of the program to do so.
"Larissa and Syd bring a lot to our program," Tolkinen said. "They have so much experience. They work so hard in practice and know what our expectations are. They can help the young kids just by encouraging them. They've led us in every statistical category the past three years. But, we don't want them to have to do everything. That's not a team."
Lurken and Lamberty have very similar games. They are long and lean and can handle the ball, take it to the basket, find an open teammate or shoot it from the outside. Overall, Lurken is fourth on Park's all-time scoring list and Lamberty is fifth. Park 2002 graduate Ashley Smith is the school's all-time leading scorer with over 1,533 points, followed by 2009 graduate Katya Leick (1,484) and 2008 graduate Jackie Voigt (1,252). This winter, Lurken and Lamberty could each surpass Smith on the all-time leading scoring list. And, in the 2013-14 season, Lamberty has a shot to eclipse the 2,000-point mark.
"I think this year is going to be even better than last year," Lurken said. "We had a really good chance last year and were so close to getting to state, but we've been working really hard this year and I think our chances are even better. We're really determined and I think we can go far if we put our minds to it."
Lamberty said she wants to make the state tournament before Lurken graduates.
"We've been talking about it a lot this year," she said. "Last year we thought maybe we could make it, but we proved that we could really get there. I think we have a better chance this year. This year it feels a lot more intense in the gym. We're at practice so we can get better to make it to state. That's why we're practicing."
During a recent training session, Lurken guarded Lamberty and vice-versa during a number of different drills. Lamberty said she thinks going head-to-head so often the past four years has helped them both improve their games.
"We definitely push each other," Lamberty said. "We talk about how it will help us go up against other people and it will prepare us both for college."
Looking for role players
Over the past three years Lurken and Lamberty have split point guard and shooting guard duties. However, this year, though they'll still be primary ball-handlers for the Wolfpack, Tolkinen said she's hoping they can both play off the ball more and less point guard than in the past.
"We have to find some role players," Tolkinen said. "We know we're going to need people to step up and make plays when Lurken and Lamberty aren't making them, because there are going to be times when they have off nights -- there have to be kids that step up. Some of these kids need to find another level and sustain it."
Park graduated five seniors off last season's roster, including two -- Rachel Kothe and Jenna Joswiak -- who played a lot of minutes. However, along with Lurken and Lamberty, the Wolfpack returns a number of talented, experienced players from last year's squad.
Back with the Wolfpack this season are senior forward Courtney Waldo, who will captain the team with Lurken and Lamberty, along with highly athletic junior Temi Ogunrinde, and twin sisters Allie and Carlie Williams, who are sophomores and multi-sport standouts at Park. Other players expected to contribute this winter include juniors Alissa Troje, Lauren Rein, Erin Diamond, Jaclyn Glazier and Mallorie Briggs and sophomores Lindsay Kothe and Emily Lange.
"The core is back and we've got some young kids that are challenging," Tolkinen said. "It's really just cleaning up, trying to get rid of some bad habits and get them to play defense and understand the team concept. I've stressed that we all have to make each other better to make our team better. That's the challenge every day. We have Temi, we have Courtney, we have Carlie, we have Annie, we have more kids down the line. Who is going to step up?"
After kicking off the season and taking part in the prestigious Breakdown Tip-Off Classic against Pine Island on Dec. 1, Park plays its home-opener against a very familiar foe -- Eastview. In a rematch of last year's section final, the Wolfpack host the Lightning on Friday, Dec. 7 in Cottage Grove.
Eastview is expected to be Park's main competitor for the section championship, however, Apple Valley and Burnsville will field strong teams, too, according to Tolkinen. In the Suburban East Conference, defending conference champ Roseville will be the team to beat. The Raiders start ranked third in the state and returned "everybody," Tolkinen said. In addition, White Bear lost star guard Alexis Foley, but should still be good, while Woodbury and Stillwater have new coaches and are expected to be solid.
"The tougher our schedule is the more prepared we're going to be at the end of February and the beginning of March," Tolkinen said. "It's not so much about what our record is going to be, but how prepared we are to go back to the section championship and give us the best opportunity to make it to state."
While coming short of state would be disappointing, Tolkinen said it doesn't necessarily mean the season would be a disaster.
"The state tournament is the ultimate goal, absolutely, but we have to keep that in a context of all of our other goals and what we're trying to achieve as a team as well," Tolkinen said. "It won't be a failure if we don't make it to the state tournament, but we have to look at what else we accomplished along the way."