Despite graduating four key players and moving up a class, head coach Cody Pulju is expecting the Menahga girls basketball team to once again win the conference title and contend for a trip to state.
Last year’s senior crew of Cierra Ahlf, Annika Aho, Megan Hendrickson and Alyssa Peterson led the Braves to a 14-0 record in Park Region Conference play, the Section 5A title, a 30-3 overall record and a fourth-place finish in the program’s second straight trip to the state Class A tournament.
Those four players will be tough to replace. Peterson was named the conference’s MVP and received Class A All-State honors after averaging 15.8 points and 3.6 assists a game while starting all 33 games. Peterson, who ended her career with 2,409 points, is currently playing at the University of Crookston. Ahlf was a Class A All-State Honorable mention and all-conference player who averaged 13.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game in 29 starts. Ahlf, who surpassed 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds, is currently playing at St. Catherine University. Hendrickson missed most of the season with an injury, but averaged 6.4 points a game in 12 appearances to earn all-conference honors. Aho chipped in 3.4 points a game while playing in 31 games.
The Braves also have to replace the contributions of Gretta Hillukka, who moved. Hillukka averaged 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 32 games last season as a freshman forward.
Those five helped the Braves average 63.0 points a game while holding the opposition to 38.4 points. Menahga made 246 3-pointers while forcing an average of 23 turnovers a game.
Being counted on to lead the Braves to another conference title and another run at returning to state are the eight returning letterwinners: senior Tara Hendrickson; juniors Timbr Berttunen, Kate Hendrickson and Martha Peterson; and sophomores Lela Peterson, Allie Pfeifer, Maryn Pinoniemi and Janie Tormanen.
Tara Hendrickson received all-conference honors after averaging 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. In 33 games as a starting guard, Hendrickson had 424 points, 190 rebounds, 73 steals, 61 assists and 11 blocked shots.
Berttunen, who missed the final 12 games with a knee injury, earned all-conference honorable mention honors after averaging 5.2 points a game. In 21 games at guard, Berttunen compiled 89 points, 48 rebounds, 30 steals and 29 assists.
Martha Peterson played in 30 games as a guard and had 104 points, 62 rebounds, 38 assists and 32 steals.
Tormanen provided depth at forward, playing in 27 games and contributing 68 points, 65 rebounds, 20 steals and 14 assists.
Pinoniemi returns at guard after chipping in 58 points, 20 rebounds and 12 steals in 26 games.
Kate Hendrickson saw action in 18 games last season and had 22 points and 13 rebounds as a forward.
Lela Peterson also played in 18 games and scored 10 points as a guard.
Pfeifer had 17 rebounds in 16 games as a guard.
Providing depth will be senior Annie Lake, junior Samara Kicker, and sophomores Amanda Lake, Julia Besonen and Kaarin Lehto.
“We are going to be a lot younger than last year, but full of athleticism and talent. We have the same expectations and goals every single year. We strive to be better today than we were yesterday and be better tomorrow than we are today,” said Menahga head coach Cody Pulju. “We did lose an elite senior class last year, but we have young girls that are ready to roll and excited for their opportunity.”
The Braves will be looking to finish ahead of Henning (which went 12-2 last season), Sebeka (9-5) and Verndale (9-5) in the conference and challenge defending champion Roseau, runner-up Crookston, Hawley, East Grand Forks, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton and Perham along with fellow newcomers Fergus Falls (which won the Section 8AAA title last season) and Pelican Rapids (which advanced to the Section 6A semifinals a year ago) for the top spot in the section.
“I see us with the ability to compete with any team in our conference and section,” said Pulju. “We have had girls working hard for years for their opportunity and finally they are going to get it. We have a lot of excitement within our program to prove that we can continue to reload and compete with anyone. If we keep growing individually and as a team, we will be right where we need to be at the end of the season.”