Seven other schools in Section 8, Class 4A may have thought they were playing for second place with the way the Moorhead Spuds girls' basketball team cruised through the regular season.
Moorhead was ranked fourth in the final 4A poll and was riding a 22-game win streak after finishing fourth in the state tournament last season.
But an odd thing happened on the way to this year's state tournament. Top-seeded Moorhead was shocked 58-46 by Elk River in the section semifinals, paving the way for the Elks or the Brainerd Warriors to win the championship.
The third-seeded Warriors (14-12) and No. 4 Elk River (16-12) play for the title 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Cloud Tech.
The Warriors defeated second-seeded Tech 44-38 in the semifinals. Two pressure free throws by senior Erica Nelson, with 18.6 seconds left, and 13 points from Megan Arns and 10 from Maria Swanson lifted Brainerd past the Tigers.
Brainerd beat Bemidji 59-48 in the section quarterfinals.
"When you win the first one you get a little excited, then anything can happen, and we did get a little excited," Warriors coach Carl Hendrickson said. "Beating Bemidji after being down, and to play well against Tech ... the kids were pretty confident we could beat Tech, and so was I."
Elk River limited Moorhead to 34 percent shooting and the Spuds were never closer than six points in the second half.
"Without a doubt it was the best we've played all year," Elks coach Larry Krieg said. "Each time they narrowed it we seemed to come up with an answer. We would score, make free throws or have something happen that was good.
"We were very fortunate. Moorhead is a very good basketball team. They didn't play at the top of their game. There's no doubt we played at the top of ours."
The Elks are led by Jamie Mulvaney, a 6-foot senior post, their only player who averages in double figures. Other starters are 5-10 sophomore post Genna Saxon, 5-8 senior point guard Amy Klaers, 5-7 senior Renee Houser and 5-6 sophomore Katie Christensen.
Brainerd is steered by Arns, its point guard, who leads the team in assists, steals, points (11.9), free-throw shooting and rebounds (7.3).
Swanson is second in scoring (9.1), free throws and rebounds (6.5).
Brainerd was probably fortunate it had an opportunity to play Tech. The bus that was scheduled to transport the team to Little Falls was late. At about 5:50 p.m., Hendrickson decided players and coaches better drive cars to Little Falls, arriving ahead of a snowstorm.
"We got the bus to come and pick us up so the kids didn't have to drive home in that mess," he said. "It's just one of the weird things you have to deal with before a section game. It was interesting but the kids rolled with it."
Now the Warriors have a chance to erase Brainerd's memory of a 61-38 section final loss to Elk River at Sartell in 2002.
"They beat us up pretty good," Hendrickson recalled. "Our kids are excited to go down there and play. We just wanted the opportunity to be there. Now, we have it, let's see what we can do with it."
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