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Park girls basketball: Wolfpack back in section championship game

Park head coach Stephanie Tolkinen celebrates her team's win over Apple Valley. "They wanted this chance," Tolkinen said. "Now, here we are. We've prepared all season for this."1 / 3
Park junior Sydney Lamberty tries to get off a shot in the Wolfpack's Section 3AAAA semifinal win over Apple Valley. Lamberty scored a game-high 25 points in the game.2 / 3
Park junior Temi Ogunrinde looks for an open teammate in the Wolfpack's win over Apple Valley. Park, ranked 10th in Class AAAA and the No. 2 seed in the section now faces top-seeded and second-ranked Eastview in the section final this Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at Hamline University.3 / 3

Since the beginning of the year, the Park girls basketball team thought they'd be in this position. But, it's one thing to think it and another to do it.

The Wolfpack is returning to a second-straight Section 3AAAA championship game after playoff wins over Rosemount and Apple Valley last week.

"We wanted to be back here this year," Park head coach Stephanie Tolkinen said. "We were hoping to have this opportunity again. Now we want to make the most of it. They wanted this chance. Now, here we are. We've prepared all season for this."

Park, ranked 10th in Class AAAA and the No. 2 seed in the section, beat Rosemount 70-43 in the opening round on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in Cottage Grove before topping Apple Valley 57-47 in the semifinals on Saturday at Hamline University.

In the win over third-seeded Apple Valley, the Eagles (16-11) led by as much as 12 in the first half and held a 25-18 lead at the break. However, Park (23-5) responded, outscoring Apple Valley 39-22 in the second half. Park junior Sydney Lamberty scored a game-high 25 points in the victory. In addition, senior Larissa Lurken scored 15 points and sophomore Annie Williams chipped in seven points.

"I wouldn't say we played our best against Apple Valley," Tolkinen said. "I think we had some lapses, especially on the defensive side. They were trying to push the ball on us and they almost ran us out of the court. We didn't do a good job in transition and we didn't do a good job boxing out and rebounding. But, the kids refocused for the second half. I think all-in-all we did a much better job in the second half."

It was the third-straight win for Park over Apple Valley. The Wolfpack ended the Eagles' season last year as well.

"The same thing has happened the last two times we played them," Tolkinen said. "They were taking it to us and we came back in the second half, rallied and won."

Before taking down Apple Valley, Park made quick work of seventh-seeded Rosemount (6-20). The Wolfpack stormed out to a 39-19 lead at the half and never looked back. Lamberty scored a game-high 28 points and Lurken netted 16 points. In addition, senior Courtney Waldo kicked in eight points and junior Temi Ogurninde scored seven points.

"We did what we needed to do," Tolkinen said. "Down the stretch the kids kept their composure and it seemed like they believed we were going to win."

Since a disappointing loss to Woodbury back on Jan. 11, Park has won 11 straight games. The Wolfpack is 15-2 since New Year's Eve.

"It's been a little bit of a journey for us," Tolkinen said. "We had to learn a little about ourselves as a team and each other as players, form some chemistry and be able to get some people to step up and define their roles a little better. I think we're at that point now."

The playoff wins earned Park a rematch with top-seeded Eastview (26-2) in the section final this Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at Hamline University. The Lightning, currently ranked second in Class AAAA, beat the Wolfpack 52-47 in last year's section championship. Eastview also beat Park 58-43 in Cottage Grove way back on Dec. 7.

Tolkinen said it would take Park's "best game" to beat Eastview.

"Whichever team plays their best game will win," Tolkinen said. "They know us, we know them. We've anticipated this game. The kids need to be focused. It's not about Eastview, it's about us playing Park basketball and believing that they're capable of knocking off this team. All it takes is one game. Our kids believe they can get them."