Braves live up to lofty expectations
With an experienced nucleus returning, Cody Pulju expected a successful season from the Menahga girls basketball team.
The Braves lived up to those expectations by going undefeated during the regular season, winning the Section 5A title and advancing to the state Class A tournament for the first time in school history in finishing with a 30-2 overall record.
"I was confident that we were bound to have a successful season after the work the girls put in all summer long. We went 27-2 last summer and played a lot of great competition from all over the state," said Pulju. "I didn't ever think we would go undefeated throughout the entire regular season, but the girls have really learned what it takes to win and amazed me with their togetherness and willingness to come together for something bigger than themselves all season long."
Menahga dominated the opposition throughout the regular season, winning 25 of the 26 games by double digits. The Braves outscored their opponents by 33.5 points a game, averaging 70.0 points a night while allowing only 36.5 points a game in going 26-0 entering the playoffs.
In the season openers, the Braves defeated Pine River-Backus 64-52 and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 65-39 in a pair of games against Section 5A opponents before opening the Park Region Conference schedule with victories over Henning (67-41), Bertha-Hewitt (83-14 in another section game) and New York Mills (70-33). Menahga closed 2017 with wins over Red Lake Falls (80-54) and Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (77-45) at the W-H-A Invitational.
The Braves posted three more wins against section rivals, starting with conference wins over Verndale (55-39) and Sebeka (85-37) and following with a win over Swanville (63-44). Conference victories over Wadena-Deer Creek (67-27), Pillager (79-39) and Henning (64-41) were followed with an 87-51 win over Browerville-Eagle Valley in another section game, a 62-10 victory over Bertha-Hewitt in a conference and section game, and an 82-14 victory over Hill City.
New York Mills gave the Braves their toughest battle in the regular season in a 50-41 loss before Menahga posted conference wins over Verndale (70-33), Pillager (67-33) and Sebeka (73-33).
After a 59-45 win over Perham, the Braves concluded the Park Region schedule with a 71-29 win over W-DC. Menahga won the conference title with a 14-0 record while Sebeka (10-4), New York Mills (9-5), Henning (8-6), Verndale (6-8), W-DC (6-8), Pillager (3-11) and B-H (0-14) followed.
Menahga closed out a perfect regular season by defeating Nevis 71-26 in a section game, Lake Park-Audubon 75-29, West Central Area 70-46 and Park Rapids 65-54.
Going 12-0 in section games and 26-0 overall gave Menahga the No. 1 seed in the North for the Section 5A playoffs. After opening the playoffs with a 75-22 win over No. 8 Browerville/Eagle Valley, a 68-55 win over No. 4 Sebeka and a 70-55 victory over No. 2 Walker-Hackensack-Akeley, the Braves defeated Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (the No. 1 seed in the South) 56-52 in the championship game. Menahga faced halftime deficits for the first time all season against W-H-A and B-B-E before rallying for the wins.
For the state Class A tournament, Menahga received the No. 5 seed and opened with a 74-69 loss to No. 4 Minneota. The Braves' historic season ended with a 66-59 loss to Heritage Christian Academy in the consolation semifinals. Menahga was rated No. 5 in the final state Class A poll.
"Throughout the season, a lot of people told me that the best thing for our team would be to lose a game and humble the girls to work harder," said Pulju. "I said most years I would agree, but not this year with this team. The focus and energy in practice makes my job easy. We had great leaders all season long and it's been fun to watch these young, talented athletes develop into great leaders and role models."
Leading the Braves to their historic season were senior Leah Schwartz; juniors Cierra Ahlf, Megan Hendrickson and Alyssa Peterson; sophomores Tara Hendrickson and Annie Lake; and freshman Martha Peterson. Schwartz, Ahlf, Alyssa Peterson and the Hendricksons started all 32 games while Martha Peterson and Lake were the first players off the bench.
Alyssa Peterson earned all-state and all-conference honors while Megan Hendrickson was named the Park Region Conference MVP. Joining those two on the all-conference team was Ahlf while Schwartz and Tara Hendrickson received all-conference honorable mention honors. Pulju was named Park Region Conference and Section 5A Coach of the Year.
For the season, the Braves shot 42.4 percent from the field (811 for 1,911, including 225 for 732 on 3-pointers) and 62.2 percent at the free-throw line (371 for 596) while scoring 2,218 points (69.3 per game). Menahga averaged 13.4 turnovers and 13.4 steals a game while allowing 1,274 points (39.8 per game).
Alyssa Peterson led the Braves in scoring at 19.5 points a game and in 3-pointers with 110 (in 304 attempts). Peterson shot 40.8 percent from the field (216 for 529) and 81.4 percent at the line (83 for 102) in scoring 625 points. Peterson also led Menahga with 97 steals while adding 121 rebounds and 74 assists.
Ahlf was second on the team by averaging 16.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Ahlf shot 37.2 percent from the field (194 for 521, including 73 for 234 on 3-pointers) and 70.7 percent at the line (70 for 99) for 531 points. Ahlf also had 230 rebounds, 87 steals, 53 assists and 11 blocked shots.
Megan Hendrickson led the team by averaging 10.5 rebounds a game while chipping in 15.1 points a night. Hendrickson made 185 of 368 shots (50.4 percent) and 113 of 205 free throws (55.1 percent) in scoring 484 points while grabbing 336 rebounds. Hendrickson also had 73 steals and 63 assists.
Schwartz averaged 6.3 points a game, shooting 51.6 percent from the field (81 for 157, including 8 for 32 on 3-pointers) and 67.3 percent at the line (33 for 49) in scoring 203 points. Schwartz also had 147 rebounds, 55 assists, 44 steals and eight blocks.
Tara Hendrickson led the team with 82 assists and 21 blocked shots and scored 199 points (6.2 per game) by making 76 of 144 shots (52.8 percent) and 35 of 78 free throws (44.9 percent). Hendrickson made 12 of 39 3-pointers and had 138 rebounds and 54 steals.
Martha Peterson played in all 32 games and scored 60 points by making 21 of 86 field goals (including 14 of 68 3-pointers) and 4 of 6 free throws. Peterson also contributed 35 rebounds, 35 assists and 31 steals.
Lake played in 23 games and scored 54 points by making 16 of 28 shots and 20 of 33 free throws. Lake chipped in 34 rebounds, 17 steals and 12 assists.
Also seeing plenty of varsity time this season were freshmen Timbr Berttunen (17 games), Kate Hendrickson (20 games) and Anita Lehto (11 games); and eighth graders Greta Hillukka (19 games), Amanda Lake (12 games), Lela Peterson (14 games), Maryn Pinoniemi (17 games) and Janie Tormanen (12 games). Those eight players combined to score 62 points and grab 76 rebounds.
The Braves have one key starting spot to fill with the graduation of Schwartz. However, Pulju is confident his team will put in the work this summer to make another run at another trip to state.
"We are excited for our summer season. We will get back to work this summer with a whole new group that will have to once again be willing to come together. Leah has been a huge part of our program and she will be missed. She was a huge leader for us all season and played a huge part in us having a successful season. In order to have another successful season, we are going to have to have some younger girls step up. We didn't have a lot of depth this year and I feel in order to stay consistent and advance further into the playoffs that we are going to have to have a deeper rotation next season," said Pulju. "Going into next season, our goal and season will not be defined by how many games we win or lose, but our goal will be to advance further into the postseason than we did this season. The girls are hungry to get back to the state tournament and win a few games down there. This is a lofty goal and it's not easy to make the state tournament. A lot of things have to fall into place. The girls know that they have a big target on their backs and that they will also get every team's best effort, which drives the girls to work even harder."