Two weeks ago, Roosevelt found its season on the brink.
Just days before, the Riders had been stunned by city rival O’Gorman in the District 1AA championship game and relegated to regions, where they would have to beat Sioux Falls Lincoln in order to reach the state tournament.
“They came out and played with more energy and urgency, and a better focus level, honestly,” coach David Maxwell said of the loss to O’Gorman. “They were better than us and took it to us.”
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Class AA state tournaments
Compounding matters, Maxwell had been ejected late in regulation against O’Gorman and was therefore suspended for the team’s next game.
But when faced with the new complications, the battle-tested Riders chose to embrace the adversity, using it as a rallying point heading into the elimination game.
“It almost felt like we had a renewed sense of focus,” explained Maxwell, who watched online as his team grinded out a 38-36 win. “There was definitely an urgency level at practice that I maybe hadn’t seen in a couple weeks. They understood that we needed to tighten some things up or our season was going to be over before they knew it.”
The team’s response was due in large part to its veteran leadership.
Roosevelt has six seniors on its roster, led by point guard Tahia Mitzel.
“She’s definitely the heartbeat of the team,” Maxwell said. “Every day in practice, her energy, her willingness to defend, willingness to do the little things right in every drill, are huge for a coach. I couldn’t ask more from her in that perspective. She just competes hard.”
Mitzel, a 5-foot-7 guard, leads the team in scoring (11.8 ppg), free throw percentage (.910) and assists (52), but it’s what she brings to the table defensively that makes her such a quality impact player.
“Defense is kind of where she thrives. She loves to play defense,” Maxwell said of Mitzel, who leads the team with 53 steals on the year. “She guards the other team’s point guard and dictates if they can get into their offense smoothly and if they can have a flow on offense. Everything starts with her.”
Mitzel is joined in the starting lineup by fellow seniors Mackenzie Philips, Peyton Stolle, Kira Ward and Taylor Bonestroo. A sixth senior, forward Katie Johnson, offers frontcourt depth, while freshman Tatum Kooima has emerged as a solid contributor, averaging 5.8 ppg.
This group has quietly accumulated 17 wins on the season (nine in-a-row to close out the regular season) and now gets another crack at O’Gorman, which was one of just four South Dakota teams to top the Riders during the season.
“I’m excited to have another chance against them, because I don’t believe we necessarily put our best foot forward in districts,” Maxwell said. “I think it’s an opportunity to get them back a little bit.”
One of the keys to handling the Knights’ physicality inside will be Stolle, a 5-11 forward who is averaging over eight points and four rebounds per game.
“The biggest thing with Peyton is just her physicality,” Maxwell said. “There was something during the Lincoln game in regions, she had this look in her eye like, ‘I don’t want to come out of the game. Leave me out there. We’re going to win this basketball game.’ I haven’t seen that look in her eyes in a while. When she plays with a physicality and a willingness to be aggressive, she can be a very, very good player.”
Here’s a look at the other area participants at this year’s Class AA girls state tournament.
No. 1 Harrisburg Tigers
Record: 21-1 | PPG: 55.2 | OPP. PPG: 40.2
Leading scorer: Jeniah Ugofsky (5-11, so., forward), 12.5 ppg.
#Analysis: Making their fifth consecutive state tournament, Harrisburg has plenty of postseason experience to lean on. This year, the top-seeded Tigers arrive as the hottest team in the state, having won 21 straight since dropping their season opener to Brandon Valley in overtime.
“Being the one-seed is a new element for us, but the kids have earned it,” coach Nick Mayer said. “They have done a great job buying in. We got that first win and just kept rolling.”
In addition to Sam Slaughter who helps anchor the team inside with 11.2 points and 5.3 boards per game, sophomore forward Jeniah Ugofsky provides a serious frontcourt punch, averaging a team-high 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Out of the backcourt, junior guard Sydney Halling averages over 11 points per game and had logged 31 steals.
No. 2 Roosevelt Rough Riders
Record: 17-6 | PPG: 46.7 | OPP. PPG: 43.2
Leading scorer: Tahia Mitzel (5-7, sr., guard), 11.8 ppg.
No. 3 Brandon Valley Lynx
Record: 19-4 | PPG: 57.2 | OPP. PPG: 45.0
Leading scorer: Danica Kocer (5-8, so., guard), 13.1 ppg.
#Analysis: With seven sophomores and a junior responsible for logging the majority of their minutes, the Lynx are, on paper, a young group.
However, their youth should not be mistaken for inexperience.
“These girls have played a lot of basketball together,” said coach Mark Stadem, who has the Lynx in their first state tournament since 2012. “They are a very close-knit group.”
Sophomores Krista Bickley, Danica Kocer and Trinity Law all played significant minutes last season, and have taken over starting roles with this year’s team.
The team looks to the senior trio of Elsie Zajicek, Ali Woodward and Emma Terveer for leadership.
“All three of them are great leaders and have bought into their roles,” Stadem said. “They put the team first and will do whatever is asked of them to help the team win.”
Brandon Valley opened its season with an overtime win against Harrisburg and has since added quality wins over Aberdeen Central and Lincoln (among others) to its resume.
The Lynx’s lone blemish over the final six weeks of the regular season came in double overtime at Aberdeen Central, which happens to be their first-round opponent in Rapid City.
“(The Golden Eagles) know their roles and are extremely disciplined,” Stadem said. “Even though they graduated some very good players from last year’s state championship team, they return an excellent team with state tournament experience.”
No. 7 O’Gorman Knights
Record: 11-11 | PPG: 46.2 | OPP. PPG: 42.4
Leading scorer: Sebastian Akoi (6-3, sr., forward/center), 10.8 ppg.
#Analysis: It’s been something of a rebuilding year for O’Gorman, which returned just one starter from last year’s team, which finished third at state. In their place has been a crop of youngsters comprised of five sophomores and a freshman.
The team’s inexperience, combined with a challenging schedule left the team at 6-9 entering the month of February. But the team’s fortunes swung up and it capped the up-and-down regular season on a high note, winning three of its final five games, including a pair on the road.
The momentum from that season-ending run carried itself into district play where the Knights knocked off Brookings before upsetting city rival Roosevelt to reach the state tournament for the seventh consecutive season.
“This team has really matured and grown throughout the course of the season,” coach Kent Kolsrud said. “They’re playing their best basketball and peaking at tournament time.”
For what O’Gorman lacks in experience, it compensates for with size and physicality.
After coming off the bench last season, Sebastian Akoi has flourished as a starter. Described by her coach as a “difference maker in the paint,” the 6-3 senior is averaging 10.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
“Akoi is a really good player. She really hurt us in the district game,” Roosevelt coach David Maxwell said. “They have some size which we lack, and they can hurt us inside a little bit, which they did (in the district championship).”
Akoi’s emergence this season has been buoyed senior guard Ashlee Beacom, whose scoring prowess (10.5 ppg) has cleared space inside.
“Ashlee draws a lot of attention and has been a great leader for us,” Kolsrud said. “Her offensive versatility and ability to defend have been keys for our success.”
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .