Defense helped Menahga girls exceed expectations during growing season
Steve Schreiber knew a young Menahga girls basketball team had to focus on defense to be successful this season after losing four key scorers from a year ago.
Menahga began the season having to replace Tarah Cleveland, the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,752 career points, along with Shelby Pihlaja, Bradi Carlson and Shannon Skoog. Those four combined to average 42.2 points a game last season. The Braves averaged 54.7 points a game as a team a year ago.
Placing an emphasis on defense helped offset a lack of experience on the offensive end as the Braves showed improvement during a 9-16 season.
The Braves opened the season by going 3-2 with a win over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (47-34), losses to New York Mills (51-34) and Verndale (42-36), and victories over Pine River-Backus (59-56) and Cass Lake-Bena (72-40).
A six-game losing streak followed as Menahga was defeated by Holdingford (46-32), Sebeka (48-47), Browerville (67-63 in double overtime), Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (48-28), Pillager (47-35) and Bertha-Hewitt (44-29). Browerville went on to win the Section 5A title and advance to state.
A 52-31 win over Swanville ended that streak, but Menahga followed by going 2-6 in the next eight games. The Braves lost to New York Mills (55-37) and Verndale (54-21), defeated Sebeka (52-43), lost to Perham (46-31), defeated Henning (43-30) and lost to Pillager (45-39), Frazee (53-44) and Henning (47-33).
Menahga ended the regular season with wins over Bertha-Hewitt (49-47), Nevis (46-42) and Wadena-Deer Creek (64-45) before falling to Park Rapids (77-25).
For the Section 5A tournament, the Braves received the No. 6 seed in the north and saw their season end with a 37-33 loss to No. 3 Pine River-Backus.
Menahga and Sebeka shared sixth place in the Park Region Conference with 3-9 records. Verndale won the conference title at 12-0 while New York Mills (8-4), Henning (7-5), Bertha-Hewitt (5-7) and Pillager (4-8) followed.
For the season, the Braves averaged 42.0 points a game while allowing 47.0 points a night. Menahga shot 29.9 percent from the field and 53.0 percent at the free throw line while averaging 19 turnovers a game. Of the 15 players who saw varsity time, nine scored their first varsity point.
“This season was a huge growing season for us. We came into the year saying it didn’t matter how many games we won as long as we were stronger at playoff time than we were at the start of the year,” said Schreiber. “We were incredibly young and inexperienced and that showed a lot on offense throughout the course of the season. We played incredible on defense and held 24 of our 25 opponents under their season average for points scored. I would say that we exceeded expectations this year.”
Leading the Braves this season were seniors Jenny Skoog and Savannah Kako; juniors Hannah Allebach, Lakyn Anderson and Sarah Kuismi; sophomores Jen Stifter, Danielle Novak, Kalley Clack and Shyanna Cusey; freshmen Alayna Lake and Lindsey Hendrickson; eighth grader Leah Schwartz; and seventh graders Aimee Lake, Alyssa Peterson and Cierra Ahlf.
Skoog (184 points in 24 games for a 7.7 average), Allebach (48 points in 23 games), Stifter (48 points in 25 games) and Kako (10 points in 12 games) were the only four players out of that group who scored points on varsity last season.
Skoog was the Braves’ only all-conference selection after leading the team in scoring (at 9.2 points a game) and rebounding (at 11.8 rebounds a game). Skoog shot 31.7 percent from the field and 68.7 percent at the free throw line while tallying 230 points, a school-record 296 rebounds (eight more than last season’s total of 288), 60 assists, 56 steals and 47 blocked shots in 25 games.
Allebach was second on the team in scoring at 7.7 points a game. Allebach shot 34.3 percent from the floor and 58.8 percent the line while compiling 184 points, 55 rebounds, 53 assists and 47 steals in 24 games.
Stifter was third on the team in scoring at 6.8 points a night. Stifter made 25.2 percent of her shots and 61.3 percent of her free throws while scoring 170 points and recording 92 rebounds, 63 assists and 41 steals in 24 games.
Anderson played in 25 games and made 28.1 percent of her field goals and 48.6 percent of her free throws for an average of 4.4 points a night. Anderson had 109 points, 58 rebounds, 26 steals and 25 assists.
Kako averaged 4.3 points a game and played in 21 games, shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 46.2 percent at the line. Kako tallied 90 points, 64 rebounds, 12 blocks and 11 steals.
Novak averaged 3.1 points a game in 24 games. Novak compiled 74 points, 47 rebounds and 13 steals while shooting 37.0 percent from the field and 58.3 percent at the line.
Alayna Lake played in 25 games and shot 19 percent from the field and 52.5 percent at the line while tallying 69 points, 42 rebounds, 41 steals and 38 assists.
Playing key roles in their varsity debuts this season were Aimee Lake (37 points, 23 rebounds in 21 games), Peterson (26 points, 17 rebounds in 16 games), Ahlf (27 points, 23 rebounds in 23 games) and Clack (22 points, 17 rebounds, 16 steals in 24 games).
Also seeing some varsity time were Kuismi (11 games), Cusey (five games), Hendrickson (two games) and Schwartz (two games).
“A team with this little experience and this little size probably shouldn’t have won nine games, but the real crazy thing is we had several other games that we were within a couple points of winning,” said Schreiber. “The reason I think we played as well as we did was because of how unselfish this team was. It really didn’t matter who scored. Everyone knew and filled their roles and everyone brought positive energy to the floor every night.”
Even though they have two key players to replace in Skoog and Kako, Schreiber is looking for the Braves to put another competitive unit on the floor next season.
“Next year we will miss the size the seniors bring and the girls already know we need to hit the weights hard this summer,” said Schreiber. “We will be even smaller next year, but we bring back some very talented young girls. They are already talking about getting as much basketball in as we can this summer. It was my favorite year to coach so far and we should only get better as this incredible group of young athletes get older, bigger and stronger.”