The Devils Lake girls basketball team is getting the hang of practicing at this point of the season.
By Harry Lipsiea
Justin Klein sits down on the bleachers of a nearly-empty gymnasium. Glancing at his phone, the Devils Lake head girls basketball coach talks to assistant coaches Kristi Ziegler and David Kerlin. The staff discusses the upcoming week, specifically the team's plans for Thursday.
"We will stop off at the gym. After that, maybe we can check into the hotel," Klein stated.
The coaches discuss what time the pep rally will be, where the bus stops and possibilities for eating places. It's a new set of details for the coaching staff to handle. But it's not a bad problem to have, the coach pointed out.
For the first time in eight seasons, the Firebird girls basketball team has qualified for the State Class A Tournament.
"I helped with the process and arrangements then, but a lot of things have changed since then," Klein, who was an assistant for the 2008-2009 state-bound Devils Lake squad, commented. "It's been a lot of fun to be practicing and playing this time of the year. As a coach, you always hope that this is a regular occurrence. But, you never take it for granted."
It's a welcome return for the program which will take the floor at Exhibit Hall in Bismarck Thursday at 5 p.m. Playing at state will be a brand-new experience for the players. One that is a dream come true for members especially seniors Mattisyn Barendt and Jenna Windjue, who will wrap up their career on the state's biggest stage.
"It's something you work for all year," Windjue, a post player, stated. "Being seniors, going out on a high point is something you always talk about. It's pretty crazy to think we are going to state for the first time in eight years. We are all really excited about it."
Barendt, a forward, noted that the nerves were high going into Saturday's state qualifier at the EDC tournament.
"We knew we had a lot at stake. You know any game could be your last, so we gave it all we had," she said. "It was so exciting when that final buzzer sounded and we all knew that we were going to state. The best feeling in the world."
It was quite the stretch for Devils Lake. After playing West Fargo Sheyenne on the road in final game Feb. 23, the team began its post-season run just two days later. The No. 8 seed knocked off the No. 9 Fargo North Spartans 66-51 Feb. 25 in a play-in game to get into the EDC Tournament.
"I thought we came out with good energy," Klein said. "It was a good start for us. You could tell the girls were focused to get into the tournament."
Things didn't slow down from there as the Firebirds were faced with the tall task of taking on top-seeded Fargo Davies in the first round. Despite a solid effort, the team fell 79-61 to the Eagles on the road Feb. 27. It was a five-point game at the half before Davies pulled away a bit late in the contest.
Again, there was little time to rest for Devils Lake from there. On March 1, the squad squared off against No. 5 West Fargo in loser-out action of the EDC tournament. It was back-and-forth between the Firebirds and Packers, who won the two teams' last contest 64-37 in early February, as both teams played hard with their seasons on the line.
"I'm not going to lie, it was pretty nerve-wracking," sophomore guard Mattea Vetsch pointed out. "It was neck-and-neck the entire game. Everyone had a feeling it was going to come down to the final play."
That was exactly the case. Trailing 58-57 with less than 15 seconds remaining, the Firebirds were focused on taking back the lead. It all started with a play that didn't work out quite as drawn up.
"I was supposed to get the ball, but they double-teamed me," Vetsch said. "Once they covered me, the ball went to Jess into the lane."
Freshman Jessica Mertens got the ball, dribbled once or twice and drained a 12-footer to give her team a one-point advantage with six seconds left.
"It felt good," Mertens said.
Sophomore perimeter player Taylor Windjue added, "We had time on that play, so we knew we didn't want to settle."
As the shot went down, West Fargo hurried for a last-second attempt. Without any timeouts remaining, the Packers attempted a desperation heave at the buzzer that was ultimately unsuccessful.
"My first instinct was to get back on defense, because we couldn't celebrate yet," Vetsch commented. "But once the buzzer went that feeling of excitement really hit the court. It was a great feeling."
It was a big win against a team that many had predicted being a true contender for the state championship. West Fargo had a 16-7 record and was near the top of the standings throughout most of the season.
"I would have to say that might be the best game of our lives," Jenna Windjue noted. "That was our do-or-die moment."
Up next for Devils Lake, was a showdown with Grand Forks Central. The Knights, the seven seed who had pulled off a major upset in the first round against Red River, had come into the game with momentum. The two teams had split during the season with Central winning by three on its court and Devils Lake earning a four-point victory at the Sports Center.
"I think when we knew we were playing Grand Forks Central, the fact that we had a chance to qualify for state began to sink in," Klein said. "The girls knew that they could win, because they had done it before."
That didn't necessarily make it easier, Alex Palmer, junior guard, said. In fact, the nerves were at an all-time high.
"I thought the jitters may be gone, but it was actually worse in the Central game," she said. "We were actually more nervous. There was more on the line and I think people expected us to win a bit more. It was kind of tense for a while."
Other than an early lead by the Knights, the Firebirds controlled the game throughout. Ultimately, the team earned a 62-46 victory and a spot in the State Class A Tournament beginning Thursday in Bismarck.
It was a tremendous ending to a busy week for the squad. The experience of playing four post-season games in a week was a challenge.
"We would gameplan and focus for our opponent. Then after that game, we moved on to the next one," sophomore post player Averi Ziegler commented. "It was kind of tough, but by the end of the week it became normal."
Mertens added, "It felt great to close out the week with three wins.."
For many, the Devils Lake girls basketball team qualifying for the state tournament was a bit of a surprise. After all, the Firebirds graduated six seniors and a majority of their scoring off of last year's team. When asked if many outside the program expected the team to be in the position it is in, the starting lineup collectively shook its head.
"Not at all," Vetsch said. "We are all still trying to wrap our heads around it. I think everyone is a little surprised, but it's a great surprise."
Klein noted that it has taken some time for the idea that the Firebirds will be playing in its first state tournament in eight years to set in.
"I'm not sure it really has sunk in yet," the sixth-year head coach said. "If you would have asked me in January if I thought we would go to state, I'm not sure what I would say. There's a reason you play the tournaments. Our goal all season long was to play our basketball of the season in the playoffs, get to Saturday and give ourselves a chance to qualify for state."
One unlikely component behind Devils Lake's post-season success was the travel over the final week-and-a-half, Klein hinted. The Firebirds traveled to Fargo four times in eight days. While many see long road trips as a negative causing low energy, it also can help build positive team chemistry, the coach said.
"In the last week, the girls really came together as a group and a team. They have learned from each other and have really started to play as one unit," he added. "It's been great to see them play together and believe in each other."
Ready to head back
Through the excitement and events that come with qualifying for state, the Firebirds are trying to stay focused with the job at hand.
"Everything's really exciting," Ziegler said. "But, we are going to play basketball and do our best to win games."
Devils Lake takes on Mandan in the first round at 5 p.m. Thursday. The Braves were the third seed going into the WDA before pulling off upsets in the semifinals and championship game. As the tournament champions, the team is coming in with momentum just like the Firebirds.
"They are obviously playing well," Klein said. "Mandan is a team with three really good players. They are pretty young and really like to get up-and-down the court. I think, overall, we match up with them okay. We really have to work to contain their three top players."
Playing at state will be a thrill, Vetsch noted.
"Being able to represent our community at state means so much," the sophomore said. "We would love to have a great turnout. It's going to be an awesome experience."
The Firebirds are hopeful that qualifying for the state tournament will be positive for the future of the program.
“It’s huge," Klein said. "It's important for the varsity program, but also for the junior high, elementary and entire community. Practicing and playing this time of the year should be our goal every single year. I think it's finally starting to set in that we are one of the final eight teams in the state playing. There’s excitement in the air right now."