The Park girls basketball team put itself in position to make history once again. And, for a third straight year, Eastview is all that stands in the way.
Park, ranked fifth in Minnesota and seeded second in the Section 3AAAA tournament, beat seventh-seeded Apple Valley 70-57 and third-seeded Cretin-Derham Hall 61-44 to punch a ticket to its third consecutive section championship game.
Park (21-6) now has a chance to reach the state tournament for the first time in school history when it tips off against top-seeded Eastview on Thursday, March 13, at Hamline University. The Lightning, ranked No. 1 in the state, have edged Park in the Section 3AAAA title game the last two years.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to be here again,” Park head coach Stephanie Tolkinen said. “We’re still playing basketball — we get to practice and we get another game. We are embracing that. Now, we just have to play the best basketball we’ve played to this point to have a chance to beat this team.”
Two years ago, Eastview (27-1) tipped Park 52-47. Last year the Lightning beat the Wolfpack 61-45 in the final. Park opened this season at Eastview and fell 40-31 on Dec. 3.
“A couple of our kids have been there the last couple of years and they really feel that this time is our time,” Tolkinen said. “They’re going to do whatever they possibly can to get us the blue ribbon instead of the red ribbon.”
Park earned a trip to another section championship game with a 17-point semifinal win over Suburban East Conference foe Cretin-Derham Hall (18-10) on Saturday, March 8, at Hamline University in St. Paul. It was the Park’s eighth-straight win, dating to Feb. 7, when the Wolfpack lost to the same Cretin-Derham Hall squad.
“That loss helped push us in the right direction,” Tolkinen said. “We had to step back and re-evaluate where we were at and some kids were challenged to step up and do a little bit more. I think kids responded. I think everyone has improved in the understanding of what we want them to do and in their own ability to play. We’ve been playing some pretty good basketball since then.”
In the section semifinal at Hutton Arena, Park — this year’s Suburban East Conference champion - opened up a 31-16 lead on Cretin-Derham Hall then held the Raiders at bay for the remainder of the game. Cretin-Derham Hall ran a box-and-one defense focused on trying to stop Park senior guard and all-time leading scorer Sydney Lamberty, but the Wolfpack was ready for it.
“We set the tone right away,” Tolkinen said. “We were expecting them to do exactly what they did, so we attacked it right away. The kids were confident in our game plan and I thought they executed it very, very well.”
Lamberty led the Wolfpack with a game-high 26 points. Junior guard Annie Williams and sophomore center Amber Fabeck each scored eight points and junior guard Carlie Williams scored six points.
Park opened the playoffs with a tough matchup against Apple Valley in Cottage Grove on Wednesday, March 5. Park took a 39-33 edge at the half, then outscored the Eagles 31-24 in the second half for the hard-fought 13-point win.
“They were probably the best seventh seed in the state,” Tolkinen said of the Eagles (6-21). “Their record wasn’t great. But, we knew they were a good team. We really had to be on our game. I thought the kids were pretty sharp and pretty focused.”
Tolkinen said it was a very physical game, but the key was Park’s defense and transition offense.
“They attacked us and made us earn everything we got,” Tolkinen said. “But, we were able to turn them over in the second half. From those steals we got some layups in transition. Down the stretch that made the difference.”
Lamberty scored a game-high 32 points in the win. Senior Temi Ogunrinde netted 12 points and Annie Williams chipped in 10 points. It was the final home game ever for all seven of Park’s seniors, including longtime starters Lamberty and Ogunrinde.
“When the game ended it really hit them I think,” Tolkinen said. “They were tearing up. They knew there was more basketball to be played, but they also knew that was the last time they’d play a contest on the floor at Park High School. That was difficult for them. They hung out a while longer after the game and soaked it in a little.”
Tolkinen said the leadership and tutelage of the upperclassmen was integral to what the team has accomplished this season.
“I’m just really proud of our kids this year,” Tolkinen said. “They’ve done a great job of staying together and helping our younger, less experienced kids improve along the way. We knew we’d need them at this point of the season. That’s the big difference and why we’re in this position.”
Now, waiting for Park is Eastview, a team that has lost only once this season, 73-60 at Bloomington Kennedy, back on Feb. 14. Led by juniors Madison Guebert and Hana Metoxen, the Lightning are on six game win streak since.
Tolkinen called Eastview “a well-oiled machine” that is disciplined and successful running set plays.
“We have to try and be disruptive,” Tolkinen said. “That all starts with our defense. We’re going to have to try and set the tone and set the tempo and not let them slow it down and run their plays like they want to. On the other side, we have to take advantage of our offensive opportunities. But, I think the key to our offense is our defense.”