Cody Pulju is counting on depth and experience to make the Menahga girls basketball team a top contender for Park Region Conference and Section 8AA titles this season.

Four starters return from a team that went 12-2 to finish second behind Henning’s 13-1 record in the Park Region Conference standings, earned the No. 4 seed in the South for the Section 8AA tournament and finished with a 20-8 overall record.

Returning to the starting lineup are senior forward Kate Hendrickson and juniors Lela Peterson (guard), Maryn Pinoniemi (guard) and Janie Tormanen (forward). Looking to vie for the other starting spot and provide depth off the bench are senior guards Timbr Berttunen and Martha Peterson; senior forward Samara Kicker; and junior guards Julia Besonen, Karrin Lehto, Amanda Lake and Allie Pfeifer.

That group helped the Braves average 55.7 points a game by shooting 40.5% from the field (550 for 1,359, including 130 for 484 on 3-pointers) and 65.9% at the free throw line (239 for 499). Menahga’s opponents averaged 41.4 points a game, shooting 35.8% from the floor (395 for 1,102, including 94 for 323 on 3-pointers) and 64.0% at the line (276 for 431). Menahga turned the ball over an average of 15.9 times a game while forcing 22.9 turnovers.

In their first season moving up to Section 8AA, the Braves opened the playoffs with a 36-30 win over Frazee (the No. 5 seed in the South) before being eliminated with a 63-56 loss to Hawley (the No. 1 seed in the North).

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A veteran lineup returns to lead the way for the Braves.

Tormanen was second on the team in scoring at 11.2 points a game while leading the team by averaging 7.4 rebounds a night. Tormanen shot 58.0% from the field (127 for 219) and 53.4% at the line (47 for 88) in scoring 303 points. Tormanen led the Braves with 200 rebounds and 17 blocked shots while adding 58 steals and 35 assists in 27 games.

Pinoniemi was third on the team in scoring by averaging 9.9 points a game while leading the Braves with 78 steals. In 28 games, Pinoniemi shot 34.4% from the field (89 for 259, including team highs of 41 3-pointers in 132 attempts) and 82.9% at the line (58 for 70) in scoring 277 points. Pinoniemi also had 69 rebounds and 44 assists.

Hendrickson played in all 28 games, averaging 6.8 points a game. Hendrickson shot 47.4% from the floor (65 for 137, including 11 for 38 on 3-pointers) and 75.0% at the line (48 for 64) in scoring 189 points. Hendrickson also had 100 rebounds, 37 assists, 36 steals and 14 blocks.

Lela Peterson started 27 games and averaged 5.9 points a game. Peterson shot 29.5% from the field (57 for 193, including going 25 for 113 on 3-pointers) and 51.3% at the line (20 for 39) for 159 points. Peterson added 51 steals, 43 assists and 42 rebounds.

Martha Peterson contributed 109 points (finishing second on the team with 28 3-pointers), 48 rebounds, 21 assists and 20 steals in 23 games. Berttunen was limited to nine games with an injury and finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. Pfeifer chipped in 53 points, 52 rebounds, 18 assists and 15 steals in 24 games. Amanda Lake had 26 points and 25 rebounds in 15 games.

Also seeing some varsity time last season were freshman guard Janelle Hendrickson, freshman guard Erica Tormanen and eighth grade forward Joie Koll. In addition to those three, junior forward Jounie Schoon, sophomore forward Brooklin Baker, freshmen guards Addie Pinoniemi and Janelle Lehto, and eighth grade forward Leah Weaver will be competing for varsity minutes.

Menahga has two key players to replace with the graduation of Tara Hendrickson and Annie Lake. Tara Hendrickson led the Braves in scoring by averaging 13.8 points a game to go along with 5.4 rebounds a night. Hendrickson scored 358 points to surpass 1,000 points in her career and had 140 rebounds, 54 steals, 45 assists and 14 blocked shots in 26 starts. Annie Lake played in 26 games and scored 65 points with 46 rebounds, 22 assists and 22 steals.

“Our strengths this winter will be our experience and depth. We return a lot of girls that have now played big varsity minutes the last few seasons. We will have 9 to 10 girls that we will be able to play at any time depending on the matchups that night,” said Pulju. “I feel we will be able to compete well within the conference and section this year. We were one point away from winning the conference last year for the fourth straight year and the girls are hungry to battle for the title again this year. We fared well in our first year in Section 8AA last season, beating Frazee in the first round and losing a heartbreaker to a good Hawley team.”

With an experienced and deep lineup, Pulju is counting on the Braves to once again battle for the conference title and make a deep run in the section playoffs.

“The girls have worked hard individually over the course of the entire offseason and are eager for the opportunity to come together once again,” said Pulju. “Our goals for this season will be the same as every other year. We will strive to grow every day and to win the conference and section titles. With the valuable experience gained from last year, I think we will be able to compete with anyone this year when the section tournament rolls around.”

Jan. 14 - vs. Sebeka, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16 - vs. Frazee, 3 p.m. Jan. 19 - at Wadena-Deer Creek, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 - vs. Pillager, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 - vs. Henning, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 - at Bertha-Hewitt, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 - vs. New York Mills, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 - at Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 - at Verndale, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 - at Sebeka, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 - vs. Wadena-Deer Creek, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 - at Pillager, 7:30 p.m.
March 1 - vs. Browerville, 7:30 p.m. March 2 - at New York Mills, 7:45 p.m. March 4 - at Henning, 7:30 p.m. March 8 - vs. Verndale, 7:30 p.m. March 11 - vs. Bertha-Hewitt, 7:30 p.m. March 12 - at Park Rapids, 7:30 p.m.