What a difference a year makes.
Last year when the Central Lakes College Raiders women's basketball team snuck into the MCAC state tournament with an 8-18 record little was expected of the youthful Raiders.
But the postseason sparked a Cinderella run for CLC that resulted in a fourth-place finish at state and ultimately a Region 13B championship and a trip to the NJCAA Division III national tournament.
The Raiders enter Friday's state tournament at Willmar with a first-round matchup against Anoka-Ramsey. The difference this year is that high expectations are justified. CLC has already established itself as one the top teams in the state with a 17-7 record and a share of the North Division regular-season title with Mesabi on its resume.
"We are playing really well right now," Raiders coach Dennis Eastman said. "Our confidence is pretty high with the way we are playing and with our win on Saturday at Itasca that earned us a share of the conference title.
"Outside of Brittany Miller being a little under the weather we are about as healthy as we have been all year and we have a lot of confidence."
Solid play and confidence will be necessary as Anoka-Ramsey defeated the Raiders 65-34 in the regular season.
"But we are a much different team than when we first faced them, and so are they in that two of their top players have been out with knee injuries since we played them," Eastman said. "We know they score about 69 points per game and we score about 63, and they allow 59 per game and we allow about the same, so it should be a close game.
"Where we have an advantage is with our height. Their tallest player is 5-9 so we want to use our inside game to our advantage and work the ball inside to get some easy looks."
MCAC state tournament
Friday's game: Central Lakes vs. Anoka-Ramsey 3 p.m.
Saturday's game: CLC vs. TBA at 3 or 8 p.m.
Sunday's games: Fifth place, noon; third place, 2 p.m.; championship 4 p.m.
One inside player the Raiders will look to is sophomore post Becky Skiba, who leads CLC with 14.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Eastman will look to other sophomore starters, like Miller, Brandi Cresap and Cayla Collison to capitalize on last season's experience.
"I think once we get down there (the sophomores) are going to remember exactly what went on last year and know what to expect," Eastman said. "They have been through the banquet and all the hoopla that comes with the state tournament. They know we need to come ready to play and put on our game faces. They are not going to be in awe of anything that goes on down there."
In order for the Raiders to qualify for and host the Region 13B tournament they must be the top North Division finisher at state, a task not made easier by a potential second-round matchup against the nation's top-ranked and 27-0 Rochester Yellow Jackets.
"You don't want to look ahead," Eastman said. "But I would look forward to the challenge of playing the best team in the nation. It comes down to if you want to be the best you have to beat the best. All you can ask for is the opportunity to go out and play the game and who knows what can happen?
"What we have to do is watch our turnovers and not panic. Those have been our taboos the whole year. We need to be able to handle defensive pressure, which is something that Anoka and Rochester try to put on you. We've been working on that in practice with some of the guys we practice against. I think we feel good about where we are in our ability to handle that type of game."
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