2011-12 Winter Preview: Park girls basketball team is bouncing backWhen you turn a corner you find out what is on the other side. This year, the Park girls basketball team is looking forward to seeing what’s there.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
When you turn a corner you find out what is on the other side.
This year, the Park girls basketball team is looking forward to seeing what’s there.
In 2008, led by current Gopher senior Jackie Voigt, Park went 25-3 and reached the Section 3AAA finals. However, in the following two seasons the Wolfpack went a combined 7-45.
After suffering key injuries, losing players to East Ridge and battling some rocky chemistry during the 2008-09 season, Park began to rebuild in 2009-10 – fielding one of the youngest teams in all of Class AAAA basketball. Without a senior on its roster, Park’s varsity team was comprised of two juniors, five sophomores, three freshmen and one eighth-grader that season.
That youthful roster began to blossom last year, however. Park went 15-13 in 2010-11, including beating Eagan in the opening round of playoffs. Park finished the year 8-10 in the Suburban East Conference, which was good for sixth place.
“Our program was thrown into a whole new dynamic - something we hadn’t experienced before,” Park head coach Stephanie Tolkinen said. ““We had to go young, so we could start to build some new leadership. We stayed positive and the kids learned so much. Then last year, we learned a lot more about basketball and about each other and really improved. Now here we are. We feel our program is at a point where, hopefully, we never experience a dip like that again.”
Park senior captains Rachel Kothe and Jenna Joswiak will be playing their fourth season of varsity basketball this year. They both said the team came together during its tough stretch.
“We knew we had a young team,” Kothe said. “Losing those games brought us closer. We didn’t blame each other and we bonded more. The past three years we’ve been really close. There’s never any drama with these girls. It makes me enjoy coming to play basketball. Playing with this family, as we call it, is a lot more fun.”
Tolkinen, in her seventh year as Park head coach and 12th year with the program, said the team needed to seek support from each other on and off the court during the down times.
“We were trying to help them see the improvements and little successes even though we weren’t getting (wins),” Tolkinen said. “But, they bonded as a group. Their friendships grew. Now, this is a family. As coaches we try to impress that upon our kids, too. From ninth grade up this is a family and we respect each other.”
Though the Wolfpack said goodbye to 2011 grads Sarah Wenner and Krystal McCalvy, Park’s top eight players this year all played varsity basketball last season.
Park has five seniors on its current roster – Kothe, Joswiak, Megan Diamond, Kadeija Harps and Erin Melson. Starting guards Larissa Lurken – a junior – and sophomore Sydney Lamberty return to the court as well. Last year Lurken and Lamberty were each All-Conference players. Also, Park brings back junior forward Courtney Waldo and sophomore standout Temi Ogunrinde.
Melson, Kothe and Joswiak have played on the varsity team for three years and Lurken and Lamberty have been starters the past two seasons.
“I still consider us young, but we have experience,” Tolkinen said. “The varsity experience is there. The team is building its chemistry and I think we’ll see that grow as the season progresses.”
In addition, Park is bringing in newcomers Rosa Giney, a junior guard, and sophomores Mallorie Briggs and Danielle Myers – who are all expected to contribute.
“This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had a bench,” Joswiak said. “We have a lot of girls we can count on. We had some drama in the past and that held us back I think. This year, we’re so close though and I don’t see anything holding us back. Our skills are starting to catch up to our level of commitment, too.”
Tolkinen, who will lead the Wolfpack alongside assistant coaches Eric Prose and Kelly Taylor, said she believes the team is coming into the season “more goal-oriented.”
“They have higher expectations for our team and they are putting those expectations on themselves,” she said. “It’s just a matter of what we take away from our practices and how we prepare for games. A lot of them worked very hard in the offseason and came in ready to play.”
Last year, Tolkinen said Park’s victory over Eagan in the Section 3AAAA tournament was a “signature win.” During the season, Park beat the teams it was supposed to, but wasn’t able to upset anyone – though coming close on multiple occasions. The Wolfpack lost to Stillwater 51-48, to Roseville 64-56, to Woodbury 47-37 and 56-45 and to Mounds View 61-54. Tolkinen said the next step is to beat some of those teams.
“We had some teams on the ropes,” Tolkinen said. “Now it’s time to take that next step forward. We need to get the W in some of those.”
This past spring the Minnesota State High School League realigned its section placements for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. The minor adjustments had a major impact on the Park girls basketball team. Now, Park won’t have to contend with two-time defending section champion Lakeville North in Section 3AAAA. Both Lakeville North and Lakeville South were both moved to Section 1AAAA. East Ridge and Henry Sibley were moved into Section 3AAAA.
Tolkinen said Eagan, Eastview, Burnsville and Apple Valley will be the teams to beat in Section 3AAAA.
In the conference, defending SEC champ White Bear Lake will be the team to beat, followed by Woodbury and Roseville.
Tolkinen said she hopes last year’s end-of-the-season momentum will carry over to this season.
“It was wonderful to see it all come together against Eagan,” Tolkinen said. “It was an all-in effort. Because we were able to win that game, the confidence has just grown. The goal is to get to that section championship now and to be in the top two or three teams in the conference. They have their goals and they set the tone.”
If the Wolfpack can somehow win the section title this season, it would be historic. Park has never reached the state tournament. However, the players have high hopes.
“Our goal this year is to get past sections,” Kothe said. “We don’t have Lakeville North in there anymore. Hopefully, we can get to the finals and win and get to state this year.”