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Braves earned more respect with second trip to state

Alyssa Peterson earned Class A All-State honors and was named the Park Region Conference's Most Valuable Player after leading the Braves by averaging 15.8 points and 3.6 assists per game. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

The Menahga girls basketball team made school history by qualifying for the state Class A tournament for the first time last season.

With several key players returning, head coach Cody Pulju was expecting the Braves to put together another historic season this year.

Despite having two key players sidelined with knee injuries late in the season, the Braves delivered by producing another historic season. Menahga went undefeated in Park Region Conference play, defeated Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa 46-39 to repeat as Section 5A champs and won a game at the state tournament for the first time in school history by defeating BOLD 65-54 in the quarterfinals. Losses to Goodhue (47-43) in the semifinals and Heritage Christian Academy (60-52) in the third-place game capped off a 30-3 season. The 30 wins matched last year's school record for victories in a season as Menahga carried a 30-0 record to its first state trip before ending with a 30-2 mark.

"We had a year that lived up to all the hype and expectations going into the season. What this group of girls was able to accomplish this year will be remembered throughout our entire community forever," said Pulju, who was named the Park Region Conference Coach of the Year. "I couldn't have been more proud of the way the girls fought and played in the state tournament. We had so many players step up and play really well. We played great team defense, rebounded well and hit a lot of shots. These girls proved to the entire state that Menahga basketball can play with anyone in the state. I feel this year we went down there and earned a lot of respect throughout the entire state."

After ending last season with the school's first state trip, Menahga continued to earn respect by starting this season with 19 straight wins.

The Braves dominated their first four opponents in coasting to wins over Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (78-35 in a section game), Hayfield (53-23 at the Hopkins Tip Off Classic), Henning (61-35 in the conference opener) and Bertha-Hewitt (71-19 in another conference game).

Menahga edged Pine River-Backus (62-57) in a section game before coasting past New York Mills (63-30 in a conference game), Verndale (65-36 in a conference game) and Frazee (67-13). The Braves then defeated Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (70-59) and Barnesville (58-38) at the Concordia College Blizzard of Basketball before posting wins over Sebeka (70-31 in a section and conference game), Wadena-Deer Creek (56-40 in a conference game), Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (58-51 in a preview of the section title game) and Pillager (62-15 in a conference game).

Menahga started the second trip against conference teams with a 45-32 win over Henning, posted a 78-58 win over West Central Area, and recorded conference wins over Bertha-Hewitt (67-25), Verndale (65-30) and New York Mills (75-39).

Eden Valley-Watkins, which was rated No. 3 in the state Class AA poll at the time, ended the Braves' winning streak with a 53-42 victory at the Alexandria Winter Lakes Classic. That loss snapped a 52-game winning streak in regular-season games dating back to a 51-45 setback to Perham on Feb. 13, 2017.

The Braves rebounded from that loss by ending the regular season with victories over Browerville/Eagle Valley (62-19 in a section game), W-DC (65-26), Pillager (63-23), Sebeka (72-37), Lake Park-Audubon (77-69) and Park Rapids (81-64). Menahga went 14-0 to top the conference standings while Henning (12-2), Sebeka (9-5), Verndale (9-5), New York Mills (5-9), W-DC (5-9), Pillager (1-13) and Bertha-Hewitt (1-13) followed.

Going 10-0 against Section 5A opponents gave Menahga the No. 1 seed in the North for the playoffs. The Braves defeated No. 8 Nevis 71-23, No. 4 Sebeka 60-42 and No. 2 Pine River-Backus 58-57 to reach the section championship game. Menahga defeated B-B-E in a rematch of last year's section title game to return to state and bring home the fourth-place trophy.

"It was amazing to get our program's first-ever state win. These girls faced so much adversity throughout the entire year. We came in with high goals but after losing two starters and huge contributors to our team right before playoffs, there was a lot of doubt that these girls could do what they did. The heart and depth of our program was really tested and so many girls took their games to elite levels when we needed them to," said Pulju. "That win over BOLD was huge for these girls and huge for our entire program and community. Our defense was really good throughout the entire tournament. We took away what BOLD liked to do on offense and the girls' effort was elite. Last year's experience was really crucial to our success. These girls showed up and were ready to go mentally and physically this year. It was a lot of fun to see their hard work pay off.

"It was amazing for our community and these girls to play in the state semifinals on TV. Goodhue is a state powerhouse and had won two out of the last three state titles. We showed that we were on their level and were right there at the end of the game. A few breaks or bounces our way in the last two minutes and we are in the state title game," said Pulju. "Both teams played great defense and our girls outworked them for a majority of the game. A couple turnovers and missed free throws in the final two minutes were the difference in the game. I give Goodhue a ton of credit as well. It was a great high school basketball game that could have easily went our way.

"We fought hard in the HCA game. We led the entire first half, but foul trouble really slowed down our offense in the second half. The way our girls play on defense with so much heart and intensity, three games in three days is tough for us," said Pulju. "I couldn't be more pleased and happy for our senior class. They have worked extremely hard for many, many years. To see their hard work pay off and to see them bring a state fourth place trophy back to Menahga was really special. They deserved to go out like this and they will be remembered in this community for a really long time."

The senior group that led the way for the Braves were Alyssa Peterson, Cierra Ahlf, Megan Hendrickson and Annika Aho. Junior Tara Hendrickson; sophomores Timbr Berttunen, Martha Peterson and Kate Hendrickson; and freshmen Greta Hillukka, Janie Tormanen, Maryn Pinoniemi and Lela Peterson also played key roles. Sophomore Anita Lehto and freshman Allie Pfeifer also saw some varsity time this season.

Alyssa Peterson received Class A All-State honors while Ahlf earned Class A All-State Honorable Mention honors. Alyssa Peterson was named the Park Region Conference MVP and was joined on the all-conference team by Ahlf, Megan Hendrickson and Tara Hendrickson while Berttunen received all-conference honorable mention honors.

The Braves averaged 63.0 points a game while allowing 38.4 points a game, which ranked No. 7 among Class A teams. The 24.6 points differential also ranked No. 7 among Class A teams. Menahga shot 42.2% from the field (750 for 1,179, including going 246 for 777 on 3-pointers) and 64.5% on free throws (332 for 515) while averaging 13.3 turnovers a game. The Braves' opponents shot 34.6% from the floor (501 for 1,450, including making 78 of 346 3-pointers) and 49.5% on free throws (188 for 380) while averaging 23.0 turnovers a night.

Alyssa Peterson led the Braves by averaging 15.8 points and 3.6 assists a game while starting all 33 games. Peterson made 40.8% of her field goals (184 for 451, including 90 of 257 3-pointers) and 69.2% of her free throws (63 for 91) in scoring 521 points to end her career with 2,409 points. Peterson dished out 118 assists and had 93 steals.

Ahlf was second on the team by averaging 13.4 points a game and led the Braves by averaging 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals a game. Ahlf made 42.5% of her shots (141 for 332, including 54 of 172 3-pointers) and 73.2% of her free throws (52 for 71) in scoring 388 points in 29 games. Ahlf, who became the first Menahga girls basketball player to grab more than 1,000 career rebounds and also surpassed 1,000 career points, hauled down 206 rebounds and had 91 steals while adding 60 assists and 11 blocked shots.

Tara Hendrickson was third in scoring at 12.8 points a game and was second by averaging 5.8 rebounds a night. Hendrickson connected on 54.9% of her shots (163 for 297) and made 61.4% of her free throws (89 for 145) for 424 points while starting all 33 games. Hendrickson had 190 rebounds, 73 steals and 61 assists while leading the team with 11 blocks.

Hillukka played in 32 games and averaged 6.6 points a game by making 44.8% of her shots (77 for 172, including 22 of 65 3-pointers) and 60.7% of her free throws (34 for 56) in scoring 210 points. Hillukka also had 126 rebounds, 41 assists and 28 steals.

Megan Hendrickson missed 21 games because of a knee injury. In her 12 games, Hendrickson shot 36.6% from the field (26 for 71) while making 22 of 45 free throws for 77 points (6.4 per game). Hendrickson also had 48 rebounds, 14 assists and 14 steals.

Berttunen also suffered a season-ending knee injury, playing in 21 games and averaging 4.2 points a game. Berttunen made 43.9% of her field goals (29 for 66, including 14 of 38 3-pointers) and 17 of 26 free throws for 89 points. Berttunen also had 48 rebounds, 30 steals and 29 assists.

Aho played in 31 games and scored 107 points by making 37.6% of her shots (35 for 93, including 20 of 55 3-pointers) and 17 of 24 free throws. Aho chipped in 60 rebounds, 37 assists and 34 steals.

Martha Peterson shot 32.2% from the field (38 for 118, including 24 for 92 on 3-pointers) and hit 4 of 8 free throws for 104 points. Peterson also had 62 rebounds, 38 assists and 32 steals in 30 games.

Tormanen played in 27 games and contributed 68 points, 65 rebounds, 20 steals and 14 assists while Pinoniemi had 58 points, 20 rebounds and 12 steals in 26 games. Kate Hendrickson tallied 22 points and 13 rebounds in 18 games, Lela Peterson had 10 points in 18 games, Pfeifer hauled down 17 rebounds in 16 games and Lehto played in seven games.

The Braves can't replace the contributions and leadership of the four seniors, but Pulju is counting on his team to put another competitive group on the floor next season.

"Our seniors will leave big holes to fill, but the tradition and legacy that they started here in Menahga has been special to watch. Our seniors have been a coach's dream. They have set the bar for every team in the future to strive for. They have been unbelievably great leaders and have been driven to be elite throughout their entire careers," said Pulju. "We will be fortunate to return a lot of talent again next year. We have a lot of young girls that are talented and athletic. We won't lack talent, but will lack experience, so this summer will be big for us. Our expectations within our program will always be the same every single year. We strive to change our best every day. I think we will surprise a lot of people next year with the depth and reloading ability of our program. If these young girls continue to buy in and work hard, we will be right where we want to be next season."

MENAHGA STATISTICS

POINTS: A. Peterson 521, T. Hendrickson 424, Ahlf 388, Hillukka 210, Aho 107, M. Peterson 104, Berttunen 89, M. Hendrickson 77, Tormanen 68, Pinoniemi 58, K. Hendrickson 22, L. Peterson 10.

REBOUNDS: Ahlf 206, T. Hendrickson 190, Hillukka 126, A. Peterson 125, Tormanen 65, M. Peterson 62, Aho 60, M. Hendrickson 48, Berttunen 48, Pinoniemi 20, Pfeifer 17, K. Hendrickson 13, L. Peterson 5, Lehto 2.

ASSISTS: A. Peterson 118, T. Hendrickson 61, Ahlf 60, Hillukka 41, M. Peterson 38, Aho 37, Berttunen 29, M. Hendrickson 14, Tormanen 14, K. Hendrickson 7, L. Peterson 6, Pinoniemi 5, Pfeifer 2, Lehto 2.

STEALS: A. Peterson 93, Ahlf 91, T. Hendrickson 73, M. Peterson 35, Aho 34, Berttunen 30, Hillukka 28, Tormanen 20, M. Hendrickson 14, Pinoniemi 12, L. Peterson 7, K. Hendrickson 4, Pfeifer 4.

BLOCKED SHOTS: T. Hendrickson 11, Ahlf 10, M. Peterson 6, Berttunen 5, Hillukka 3, Tormanen 3, M. Hendrickson 2, A. Peterson 2.

2-POINT FIELD GOALS: A. Peterson 184-451, T. Hendrickson 163-297, Ahlf 141-332, Hillukka 77-172, M. Peterson 38-118, Aho 35-93, Berttunen 29-66, M. Hendrickson 26-71, Tormanen 26-75, Pinoniemi 18-47, K. Hendrickson 9-20, L. Peterson 4--27, Lehto 0-1, Pfeifer 0-8.

3-POINT FIELD GOALS: A. Peterson 90-257, Ahlf 54-172, M. Peterson 24-92, Hillukka 22-65, Berttunen 14-38, T. Hendrickson 9-28, Pinoniemi 6-20, M. Hendrickson 3-10, L. Peterson 2-17, K. Hendrickson 1-6, Tormanen 1-13, Lehto 0-1, Pfeifer 0-2.

FREE THROWS: T. Hendrickson 89-145, A. Peterson 63-91, Ahlf 52-71, Hillukka 34-56, M. Hendrickso 22-45, Aho 17-24, Berttunen 17-26, Pinoniemi 16-24, Tormanen 15-20, M. Peterson 4-8, K. Hendrickson 3-3, L. Peterson 0-1.