Reevaluate, restructure, repeat: How L/E/M turned it around after 3 straight losses to head back to state
A lot of things lined up almost perfectly for the Cardinals last season. They knew who was going to play, what to expect from those who would play and how they were going to finish every game. It eventually would lead to a perfect record and a state title.
It was a structure that had proven was unpenetrable. Langdon/Edmore/Munich had clinched the only awarded basketball title of 2020. It had seemed like they had escaped the impact of COVID-19 with a title under their belt. But it wasn't in March that COVID-19 impacted L/E/M, but July and August that would really stun the Cardinals.
L/E/M was losing two major pieces in Callie Ronningen and Kaitlynn Scherr, not just as players on the court, but as leaders, leaving a hole to be filled. Then came the cancellation of summer ball, which is where the Cardinals would spend time figuring out their systems and building a solid structure to use in the winter.
After a month's postponement to the season, L/E/M was back on the court against Benson County to open up the season...and they lost. It sounded an alarm for the Cardinals that they were a very different team from last season and with the time lost in summer ball, they needed to start figuring out their identity now.
"Without a summer it was pretty hard coming into our first game," junior forward Morgan Freije said. "You obviously don't want to start the season out on a loss, but I think that's what started our motivation and drive, being that it was a new year and we didn't have a summer. We needed to build off of that and have girls step up after losing two big leaders on offense and defense. It's what we had to do and what we're continuing to do."
The Cardinals fought to find stability throughout the season. After a rocky start to the season at 3-3, L/E/M was beginning to put things together, winning 10 straight and driving through the district and regional play. However, there were still questions that remained unanswred about who and what to expect each night. The Cardinals had a system working, but some cracks were still needing to be filled.
How to follow the 2021 NDHSAA Class B Girls State Tournament
Game time: Thursday, March 4 at the Minot State Dome at 9 p.m.
TV: WDAY Fargo, WDAZ Grand Forks
Radio: KNDK - 95.7 FM
Tickets: All session and single game tickets can be bought on Minot State Beavers Tickets. There is a four ticket limit to a single indivdual.
Follow Devils Lake Journal sports reporter Jack Williams on Twitter @jackgwilliams. He will be following the Cardinals during their time in Minot. Look out for game recaps, photos and more on devilslakejournal.com.
It was a bubble that was growing, despite all the wins, and it finally burst at the beginning of February. They would lose to Four Winds/Minnewaukan, then Grafton, and then Velva, ending the season with three straight losses. Restructuring was needed and needed fast. The postseason was right around the corner and L/E/M's system as of late wasn't working.
"Ending the regular season with three straight losses showed us a lot as coaches and players," Cardinals head coach Rob Scherr said. "We said everybody on the floor has to earn their minutes. I don't care if you're starting or not, you have to earn your minutes on the floor. It's not a given right."
To add to the restructure, senior guard Lexi Olson would go down with an ankle injury, putting her in a boot and crutches right at the end of the regular season. With Olson out and the Cardinals needing something new, they went deeper. They went from cycling in six, seven girls a night to nine. JV players were now playing almost six quarters a night while varsity players stepped into new leadership roles.
"We were playing the regular season and all of us that were playing weren't getting it done," Scherr said. "We knew we only had 12 kids out and had a crew playing JV, and they were getting better. Some were getting six quarters a night, all of them were getting four solid. We knew the improvement of them when JV season would finish, that we could incorporate them into the weaknesses we've seen in varsity."
Last season they didn't need to go deep because everything they needed was in their starting five but with three losses leading into games that meant win or go home, the rest of the bench may have the spark the Cardinals need. And they did.
L/E/M began to put the wins together in districts, winning the District 8 title by 13 over Dunseith. Then they plowed through regionals, limiting both New Rockford-Sheyenne and Nelson County, the District 7 runner-up, to 30 points or less. Then came a moment where the Cardinals had a chance to clean up a game from that 3-game slump and prove that they were still a challenger as the defending state champions: Four Winds/Minnewaukan in the title game.
The Lady Indians threw everything they had at the Cardinals, but the nine-player cycle, the return of Olson, and a defensive mindset that had led L/E/M to so many state tournaments in the past were enough to ignite them past Four Winds and send them back to the Class B dance.
While the Cardinals game on the court has improved and remained consistent since the beginning of the year, it has come down to mentality and a refocus that has allowed this team to find success late in the season. The losses this season have taught L/E/M that they can compete with everyone, and are now on a similar wavelength of doing whatever it takes to win.
"We're here for each other," senior forward Kaylee Lowery said. "The losses are tough and we know that we should've won every game that we played. It's about believing in each other, knowing that we can do it. Our mentality is different now because we see things differently than the coaches do in seeing and how we go into each game. Early this year we were more laid back, but we realized that we need to be more aggressive, in their face and hardworking."
The incorporation of the JV players onto the varsity roster has been an adjustment for the Cardinals, but in a year where a lot of things need to be changed up, it benefited them in the long run. Freije, who worked heavily within the system that Ronningen and Scherr were running last season, had to adjust her game in the paint with newer players coming into outside spots. Freije said that she has enjoyed getting used to the newer players' game and helping them along.
"It's definitely been a different year for me," Freije said. "They would throw it into me and then reposition themselves. If I couldn't find a shot, I would find Kait or Callie, cause they would be collapsing, and they would hit it. Now learning where girls need to be when I have the ball, learning where they are, and learning their tendencies because they're so young, has been fun. It's definitely been challenging at times as well."
In addition to getting more bodies out on the court, allowing starters to get a break, it's taken some pressure off key players. After their game against Grafton, Scherr said that the team felt a little too pressured by themselves to win, eventually resulting in a loss. Now, having faith in the rising JV core and coinciding with the team's newfound mentality, there is time for the starters to calm down for a few minutes physically and mentally.
And it's not just helped on the court, but it's helped the team as a whole to find a gel and play as a collective unit. Scherr said in the postseason, you can tell that there's more of a sense of comradery and togetherness than in the regular season.
"I think they love each other, but during the year at times it didn't look like they loved each other or play with each other and it didn't look good," Scherr said. "Now, it looks like they want each other to be happy and support each other. I want them to be relaxed, play fast, and let the game come to them, but I don't want them to stand around. I want them to be aggressive. With all these new girls now, they're going after it."
The aggressive approach is what won punched the Cardinals' ticket back to the state and in practice, they're continuing to touch up on that. Defense continues to be the main focus, especially facing a Carrington squad with some height in state quarterfinals. Center Sydnie Grager and forward Hannah Hagel have charged the Carrington Cardinals in the post, which is where L/E/M has been locking down on in these practices leading up to Thursday.
"We're looking to touch up on working in with the post," Lowery said. "We've been working on that a lot this week since who we'll be facing in the first round in Carrington has two tall girls down there. We're working on how we're going to do things with them and closing out to not let a driver get to the basket."
L/E/M did face Carrington earlier this season, losing 51-37, but the Cardinals felt like they never really played well that game. A lot of it came down to the defense which has been L/E/M's edge in the postseason. Things have come together for L/E/M since that loss to Carrington in January and the Cardinals are expecting a different game come Thursday night.
The defensive restructure has gotten L/E/M far, and it's not as complex as it may seem. The defense has been a cornerstone in the Cardinals program over the past four seasons and now with it coming into play again, L/E/M is trusting its basics to power the aggressive press that has brought them back to life.
"We just have to stick to the fundamentals and little things we know how to do," Freije said. "By doing those, that's what's going to help us do something we know how to do and not overdo it. We just need to stick to it as a team and play together."
The Cardinals may be going into this tournament as a No. 5 seed, but they are veterans at this level. They've competed as a team at state not just in basketball, but volleyball multiple times. They have found success as the "Best in North Dakota" and know that togetherness is the glue that keeps them intact. Now strengthening that sense of team and unity at the most important time of the season, the underdog, L/E/M, could very much be the top dog in disguise.
"It's all about how we go about things," Lowery said. "We can't flip out about little things. We've just got to keep playing together. Obviously, you're going to see that where a team flips out, but that's where your mental focus comes in. We see together as a team that if one girl is having a bad game then that other girl needs to step up and just shine. That's why we mesh so well. We have so many players that can step in and do anything. They have the same mental focus and even better focus than some girls on the court."