The throne of Section 1AAAA boys basketball opened up, and the Owatonna Huskies’ hopes to three-peat as section champions were shot down Saturday night after No. 4 Owatonna lost 72-44 to the No. 1 seeded Lakeville North Panthers.
Section 1AAAA has produced plenty of talent over the past couple of seasons. But for the last two years, the Owatonna Huskies were the team to beat after claiming back-to-back section title wins during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
Owatonna knew the road back to the top was going to be tough with the amount of talent that departed from last year’s team that made a run to the Class AAAA state consolation finals. But it almost didn’t matter.
“I thanked them for the heart they played with all season and how they competed,” Owatonna head coach Josh Williams said on the message to the team. “You gotta compete and that’s what got us in this position this year. Just from how hard they play to how unselfish they are as a group.”
Between a returning tandem of senior guards Blake Burmeister and Collin Vick, along with a variety of players –who saw little to almost no time on the court last year– taking a massive step forward, the Huskies found themselves right back in the conversation for a conference and section title.
But one major roadblock was in their way of returning to the Mayo Civic Center and it was one that was looking for revenge.
Lakeville North, led by a pair of University of Wisconsin commits in senior Nolan Winter and junior Jack Robison, were eliminated by the Huskies in the semifinals last year and the Class AAAA state-title contending Panthers were more than determined to return the favor.
In front of a loaded Lakeville North crowd inside Lakeville North High School, the Huskies brought the fight to the Panthers in the first half.
The Panthers got off to a strong start and took an early 7-0 lead before senior forward Nils Gantert got things going for Owatonna by scoring through contact. It ultimately led to sophomore guard Nolan Ginskey scoring and going to the line to give the Huskies an 8-7 lead off the and-one play.
Owatonna and North traded baskets and managed to remain tied at 20-20 before the Panthers found a way to distance themselves from the Huskies.
Not only do North’s scoring threats help separate it as one of the top teams in Class AAAA, but it also has a distinct height advantage that most teams would struggle to compete against. Highlighted by Winter at six-foot-10-inches, rebounding came a much more difficult task for Owatonna.
The Panthers managed a 14-3 run to close out the remainder of the first half and took a 24-23 lead over Owatonna going into halftime.
Between the struggles of trying to grab rebounds over North’s forwards and not getting to see enough shots to fall early in the second half, the Huskies sunk deeper into the hole as the Panthers slammed their foot down on the gas pedal.
“We just didn’t have the offensive firepower that we needed to beat a team as good as [Lakeville North],” Williams said. “But a phenomenal group of guys, our seniors have been awesome all year and we thanked them in the locker room. It’s always tough to see them go.”
Owatonna saw a couple of buckets from Burmeister, Vick and Klecker, but a 47-14 rebounding deficit while shooting 36.2% total from the field against North’s 56.1% total field goal percentage helped the Panthers coast to the Section 1AAAA championship game and ended the Huskies season in the semifinals.
Burmeister’s 11 points led Owatonna in scoring with Vick following him up with nine points. Klecker and junior guard Rielly Kleeberger both added seven points, Ginskey added six points and Gantert added four points.
Illness in the days leading up to Saturday night’s game also didn’t help Owatonna’s case, which saw Kleeberger make his first varsity start in place of Burmeister, who wasn’t competing at 100%.
The loss signals another departure of an impactful Owatonna senior class. The Huskies saw their final games out of guards Blake Burmeister, Collin Vick, Ayden Walter and forwards Nils Gantert, Jason Klecker, Mikah Elstad and CJ Theis.
Owatonna will have to find a way to replace the production of its seniors, but do already have pieces set to return for next season, which includes the experience of Kleeberger and Ginskey. The Huskies will also see the return of Jacob Ginskey, who sat out the last chunk of the season with injury.
They’ve also seen a variety of players spend some time on the floor in the same capacity that players like Walter and Klecker saw last season before stepping into prominent roles this season.
“It’s a very similar situation to last year with Blake (Burmeister) and (Collin) Vick being the two underclassmen in the rotation last year,” Williams said. “Nolan (Ginskey) and Rielly (Kleeberger) were kind of in that position this year to, really all season, get great experience. [Lakeville] is not an easy place to come play against a team picked to win the state championship. It’s not an easy environment to come into and for Rielly to get his first start ever in this position, it’s tough and really great experience.”