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Menahga girls went on roller-coast ride, ended season with 11-14 record

Tarah Cleveland (35) capped off her senior season by averaging 22.1 points per game for the Menahga girls basketball team.1 / 2
Shelby Pihlaja finished second on the Menahga girls basketball team by averaging 15.4 points a game.2 / 2

  It was a roller-coaster ride for the Menahga girls basketball team this season.

     The Braves couldn’t put a winning streak together all season, finishing 11-14 overall and tying for fourth place in the Park Region Conference standings with a 7-5 record.

     “We had a very up and down season. We played really well with some of the toughest teams on our schedule, but played very poorly against some of the weaker competition on our schedule,” said Menahga head coach Steve Schreiber. “I’m proud of our strength of schedule and I think that will only benefit us in the future. I set my expectations extremely high, so as a program we are not there yet.”

     Menahga alternated wins and losses early, defeating Park Rapids (68-53), losing to Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (68-58), defeating Verndale (68-65), losing to Sebeka (66-60), defeating Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (54-39) and Pillager (58-46), losing to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (65-48) and defeating Hankinson (65-42).

     A four-game losing streak followed as the Braves dropped games to Wadena-Deer Creek (51-23), Henning (55-48), Nevis (62-58) and Bertha-Hewitt (56-44) to fall to 5-7.

     The Braves couldn’t return to the .500 mark. After a win over New York Mills (62-47), the Braves lost games to Verndale (54-49) and Perham (58-52). A win over Pillager (70-58) was followed with a loss to Frazee (64-49). Back-to-back victories over Sebeka (71-64 in two overtimes) and Henning (51-36) were followed with losses to Staples-Motley (65-40) and Bertha-Hewitt (55-42).

     Menahga ended the season with wins over Browerville (60-49) and New York Mills (71-50) and a loss to Pine River-Backus (71-22).

     In the Section 5A tournament, the Braves received the No. 4 seed in the West and hosted No. 5 Browerville. A poor shooting night ended the Braves’ season as Browerville advanced with a 45-34 victory. Menahga made only 9 of 50 field goals, including 4 of 24 3-pointers, in that playoff loss.

     “We made a big philosophical switch halfway through the year on the defensive side of things and it made the last half of the season really fun to watch,” said Schreiber. “The biggest disappointment was our playoff game. I wish that would’ve been a regular season game because we did so many things well. We played strong defense, we moved the ball well, were patient on offense and got really good looks at the basket. Many of the shots we missed were wide open shots. Some nights they just don’t fall for you and we ran into one of those nights. It’s just disappointing that is was a playoff night.”

     For the season, the Braves averaged 53 points a game while allowing 55.4 points a night. Menahga only turned the ball over 13.5 times a game, but shot only 34.2 percent from the field (448 for 1,309) and 25.2 percent on 3-pointers (134 for 532).

     Leading the Braves this season were seniors Tarah Cleveland, Bradi Carlson and Shannon Skoog; juniors Jenny Skoog and Savannah Kako; sophomores Shelby Pihlaja and Hannah Allebach; and freshman Jen Stifter.

     Cleveland led the team in scoring at 22.1 points a game and graduates as Menahga’s all-time leading scorer with 2,752 points. In 24 games, Cleveland made 155 of 438 shots, including 75 of 247 3-pointers, and 146 of 185 free throws for 531 points. Cleveland also had 95 rebounds, 70 steals and 67 assists. Cleveland scored at least 20 points in 16 games with a high of 35. Cleveland was named the team’s Offensive Most Valuable Player and earned Park Region Conference honors.

     Pihlaja was second on the team in scoring at 15.4 points a game and also earned all-conference honors. In 25 games, Pihlaja made 138 of 379 shots, including 30 of 118 3-pointers, and 80 of 131 free throws for 386 points. Pihlaja also had 143 rebounds, 57 assists, 26 steals and 22 blocked shots. Pihlaja, who had a season high of 27 points and scored at least 20 points in seven games, was named the team’s Most Improved Player.

     Jenny Skoog received all-conference honorable mention honors after averaging 7.7 points and a team-leading 12.0 rebounds a game. In 24 games, Skoog made 68 of 183 shots, including 17 of 59 3-pointers, and 31 of 47 free throws for 184 points. Skoog scored in double figures seven times with a high of 19 and had double digits in rebounds in 15 games with a high of 19. Skoog led the team with 288 rebounds (which set a school record) and chipped in 52 assists, 34 steals and 27 blocked shots to share the team’s Defensive MVP honor.

     Carlson moved into the starting lineup and averaged 3.0 points a night. In 25 games, Carlson made 32 of 102 shots, including 7 of 42 3-pointers, and finished with 76 points. Carlson also had 76 rebounds, 45 assists and 11 steals and earned the team’s Leadership Award.

     Allebach played in 23 games and scored 48 points with 51 rebounds, 20 steals and 12 assists.

     Stifter played in 25 games and also scored 48 points with 71 rebounds, 37 assists, and 20 steals. Stifter received the team’s Heart Award.

     Shannon Skoog shared the team’s Defensive MVP honor after scoring 43 points, grabbing 64 rebounds and tallying 34 assists and 22 steals in 25 games.

     Kako played in 12 games and scored 10 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.

     Also seeing some varsity time this season were sophomores Lakyn Anderson and Sarah Kuismi; freshmen Kalley Clack, Shyanna Cusey and Dani Novak; and eighth grader Alayna Lake.

     “This was my favorite season so far as a coach. We had senior leadership and a drive to get better,” said Schreiber. “This year’s seniors were part of my very first team at Menahga when they were eighth graders, so I have a very tight bond with them. Each brought their own special attributes and the girls next year will have huge shoes to fill. The lower levels will miss these girls, too. We have a very strong elementary program right now and all they talk about is wanting to be like our seniors and trying to emulate them as best they can. Their hard work will benefit the program here long after they are gone.”

     Looking ahead to next season, Schreiber has a solid nucleus to build around with 11 players who saw varsity action returning. That experience has Schreiber expecting another successful season next year.

     “We aren’t rebuilding next year. Our expectations for next year only get higher,” said Schreiber. “It will be a different looking Menahga team next year than we’ve had here in quite some time. We could have a much younger look, especially if some of the young girls put the work in this summer. We will bring back two girls that I think will be in the top five of all the players in our conference in Jenny and Shelby. Many very good players graduated this year from our conference and we expect to fight for a conference title again next year. We also should be a top five team in our section again. It all hinges on how hard we work from now until November. I’m confident these girls will put the work it takes to keep moving in the ‘great’ direction.”