Because of an injury suffered two summers ago, Pierz senior Cyndi Kimman was forced to watch from the sidelines as her girls' basketball teammates fell in the second round of the playoffs last season.
The 5-foot-10 senior center has returned this season to lead her team to a 22-3 record and has a state tournament bid on her mind. The Pioneers face St. Cloud Cathedral in the Section 6AA championship game at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Halenbeck Hall at St. Cloud State.
"I have always wanted to get to state and it's my last chance," said Kimman, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in a summer basketball game. "It's a lot better now except for the usual soreness after practice."
Pierz coach Rick Sczublewski said the Pioneers are playing their best basketball right now and turned their season around following a 60-40 loss to Eden Valley-Watkins on Jan. 25. The Hornets led 23-0 after the first quarter, but Pierz came back in the second half to outscore them 32-25.
"Since then we've been playing together a lot better," said Kimman, who reinjured her knee in that game and also missed the next two games. "We've really picked up our game offensively; we're scoring a lot more points."
Shiela Stegora, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, leads the Pioneers in scoring at 16 points a game, while Kimman averages 13 and 5-9 senior forward Beth Stegora averages 11.
"Starting with the second half of the first Eden Valley game, we've been playing really well," Sczublewski said. "I said to them at halftime we could pull in the tent and call it a season or we could show what kind of team we are. We've just picked up our game a lot. When Cyndi came back it was just another shot in the arm."
Cathedral, which fell to Pierz 41-34 in December, has also been playing its best basketball of the season. The Crusaders have run off 10 straight wins, including a 54-51 overtime win over St. Michael-Albertville, rated No. 7 in Class AA, in the subsection semifinals.
"I think at the beginning of the year the system I used was quite different from what they were used to," said first-year coach Jerry Cool, son of former Little Falls coach Jerry Cool, Sr. "We had four sophomores that were starting and some injury problems. We were getting to know each other and getting my philosophy down."
Cool said he brought to Cathedral a lot of what his father used to do, including pressure defense and a disciplined offense.
The Crusaders are led by Anne Laraway, a 6-foot forward who averages 12 points and seven rebounds, and 6-2 sophomore Kit Casey (8.7 and 6). Laraway also recorded two triple-doubles this season and has 111 blocked shots.
But Cool said his team is extremely balanced through seven players. The other three starters -- Kim Yager, Jamie Roden and Claire Loesch -- can all hit the three-pointer.
But the key to handling the Crusaders will be stopping Laraway and Casey, Sczublewski said.
"In our conference we don't have really too many tall players," said Kimman, who averages 9.5 rebounds a game. "It makes it tougher and we'll look to try to sandwich them more. We really have to work on boxing out."
That is something the Pioneers were able to do in their 41-38 subsection final win over Mora. Pierz was also outsized in that game, but Mora shot just 0-for-12 from beyond the three-point arc.
"It's kind of what you want to give them and don't want to give them," Sczublewski said. "We will concentrate on the inside people, help them out and force them to shoot outside more than they want to. We did a great job of rebounding last week and we've been concentrating on boxing out on the zone, which isn't easy to do."
Assisting the inside play of Kimman and the Stegoras has been improved shooting by guards such as Katie Bell and Amber Sitzman. The Pioneers have knocked down more than 100 threes this season, which is easily a school record.
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