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New Life Eagles soar into section finals

New Life Academy senior Mark Rygh goes to the basket strong in the first half in a 58-30 Section 4AA semifinal win over St. Paul Academy Tuesday. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Eli Gorter of the Eagles is fouled as he takes the basketball to the hoop Tuesday against St. Paul Academy. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
New Life's high-flying guard Evan Atkinson soars to the basket in the first half against St. Paul Academy. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Sophomore forward Michael Reader of the Eagles muscles his way through the St. Paul Academy defense in the second half of New Life's 58-30 win in the Section 4AA semifinals. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

ST. PAUL — The New Life Academy Eagles moved to within a win of the Class AA boys state basketball tournament with a rousing 58-30 victory over St. Paul Academy Tuesday.

The Eagles jumped out to a dominant 20-4 start in the first half and never faltered in a Section 4AA game played at St. Paul Washington.

"We came out ready and prepared and I credit it all to the preparation the boys put in," said New Life coach Kory Kiekhoefer. "This was a little bit of a comeback game for us, having lost to them earlier in the year and we came out knowing exactly what they wanted to do and we were prepared. Through film through practice, the boys were dedicated to getting this job done."

Third-seeded New Life Academy (20-8) will play top-seeded Minnehaha Academy (24-4) Friday in the section championship game, starting at 7 p.m. at St. Paul Washington High School. The winner advances to state.

Minnehaha Academy crushed Trinity School at River Ridge 62-29 in the first section semifinal at Washington Tuesday evening.

Senior guard Mark Rygh led the Eagles with 18 points and Zach Thor added a dozen in New Life's win over St. Paul Academy. Rygh was able to drain open jump shots and take the ball to the hoop strong Tuesday.

"Offensively, just running the sidelines and making sure I was open for the guys when they needed me," Rygh said. "Going to the basket strong was a big key as well, just being confident with my finishing and then they go."

Seventh-seed St. Paul Academy upset second-seeded Cristo Rey Jesuit 74-61 to advance to the semifinals but proved no match for the Eagles Tuesday.

The Spartans had defeated New Life in the final regular-season game this winter, winning 64-53, but this game was nothing like the earlier contest. New Life played its transition game to perfection early and late, getting excellent ball movement which led to great looks at the basket. On defense, the Eagles totally took the Spartans out of what they liked to do and forced bad shots all game.

"I think we played a really good defensive game," said senior guard Tate Hullett, one of six seniors and five senior starters that have led the Eagles all season. "We kind of held strong when they cut through the lane and pushed the pace in transition to get us open looks in the paint."

"I think we came out with a lot more energy than in the regular season," Hullett added. "We were pretty low in the first game. But this game we were a lot higher energy, wanting to win basically. A will to win."

New Life led 25-13 at the half. The second half was more competitive, but the Spartans never got closer than 30-17 at the 12-minute mark.

"We came out with energy and togetherness," Kiekhoefer said. "I think our energy and passion set the tone right away. We played the pace we wanted to play this game. We didn't play slow like they typically want to play. We set the tone and that's the key — who can set the tone in a game like this and we were able to do that tonight,"

Friday's game will be New Life Academy's first section final since moving to Class 2A in the 2011-12 season and the first section final since 2004 for the Eagles, said New Life Academy Athletic Director Kevin Kleiner. The Eagles played in the state basketball tournament in 2003 and 2004.

"That's a great team," Kiekhoefer said of the Minnehaha Academy Redhawks. "But all season long this has been the date we want. We had it circled on our calendar. We wanted our one shot. We have a lot of respect for them and their program. But we wanted our one shot."