2019-20 RECORD: 13-13 overall, 7-7 Gopher (5th).
LAST GAME: 58-46 loss to Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial in the first round of the 2AA subsection tournament.
There is no doubt as to the teams anticipated to compete this season for the Gopher Conference title, but then there are intriguing squads like New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva.
The Panthers epitomized a .500 team last year, putting together win streaks and losing streaks. But along the way, NRHEG knocked off Blooming Prairie 58-53 when the Awesome Blossoms were ranked No. 6 in Class A.
Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, which ranked No. 7 in Class A, shared the conference title with Medford after each went 12-2 against league opponents. The Buccaneers return all but Trista Hering and Payten Polzin from last year’s team that finished 27-4 and defeated Heritage Christian Academy in the first round of the state tournament before its cancellation. WEM earned its first trip to the state tournament and with leading scorer Brielle Bartlet back with Toryn Richards, Ellie Ready and Kylie Pittmann, it’ll be tough to beat the Bucs.
NRHEG interests opposing coaches because the team returns a year older and wiser and graduated just one player from the team. Sophie Stork and Sidney Schultz highlight the returners after Stork led the team with 17.9 points and 8 rebounds per game. Stork eclipsed the 1,000 career point mark last year as a sophomore. Schultz averaged 15.6 points per game, 4.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game.
But the Panthers will need to develop depth this season, especially with Stork likely to miss the first few weeks of the season following surgery to repair her meniscus. Erin Jacobson and Faith Nielsen step to the fore after Jacobson scored 5.8 points a game and Nielsen averaged 4.6 points a game. Nielsen shot 38% from the field, including 35% on 3-pointers.
“We had a lot of young kids, a lot of freshmen playing last year,” NRHEG head coach Onika Peterson said. “Their biggest thing last year was just getting time.”
The Panthers will need some help in the paint this season because they lack height and use a guard-heavy lineup. Peterson pointed to Teagan Sutter and Sarah George as two interior players who can make strides. Sutter scored 3 points a game while George appeared in just four games.
NRHEG will work on its offensive efficiency this season, Peterson said, after it rushed shots at times. Peterson still wants the team to play a transition game with a quick pace and with an additional year of experience, the Panthers can likely find a better balance between pace and shot selection.
NRHEG didn’t get much practice during the summer. The Panthers got three total practices in part because of a positive COVID-19 case, and then gyms in the district remained closed for repairs in the fall.
Peterson anticipates Blooming Prairie and WEM to be near the top of the conference, while Medford could continue to compete for the crown despite the graduation of Kiley Nihart, Izzy Reuvers and Emma Kniefel. She also believes her team can fight for one of the spots in the top half of the league.
Gopher Conference teams will play each other twice this season, leaving just four non-conference games. NRHEG will face section opponents Waseca and Fairmont as part of the non-conference schedule. Both teams will compete for the 2AA section title. The Bluejays graduated their outstanding trio of Gus Boyer, Rachel Breck and Hannah Potter but the Cardinals return everyone from last year’s squad. LCWM should compete too, despite graduating two guards and a center.