ST. CLOUD -- It's been 17 years since the Staples-Motley girls' basketball team advanced to the state tournament.
In Tuesday's Class 2A state quarterfinal against New London-Spicer, the Cardinals seemed more relaxed than they were in their season opener.
The Cardinals came out with a casual, "We have nothing to lose mentality," and it showed from the start. S-M stayed close for much of the first quarter, only to see its chances of prolonging its season slip away.
The Cardinals really didn't have anything to lose. They hadn't been to the section finals in more than five years. Add to that a 62-year-old coach who came out of retirement to lead them and a state tournament appearance seemed out of the question.
But Cardinals head coach Ron Beachy knew he had something special.
"I wanted these girls to experience something like this," said Beachy. "It got a little rocky at midseason. I sat there and I thought, 'Is this going to happen?'"
It did happen, even after a 14-10 regular season that saw the Cardinals drop seven of their last 11 games.
Then Beachy reinserted Rachel Domier into the starting lineup. She helped the Cardinals win their last two games of the regular season. That catapulted them into the Section 8, Class 2A playoffs.
The fifth-seeded Cardinals upset No. 4 Pine River-Backus, beat No. 8 Perham and No. 2 Warroad to get to the section final. S-M then defeated West Central by a point to make only its third state appearance.
"It feels really good just to make it to state," said center Steph Rice. "I think we could have gone further. I'm glad we got this far."
The Cardinals did it as a team. They had four starters average double figures in scoring, with the others averaging 8 points a game.
They had a deep bench, with seniors Emily Waldahl, Beth Hoffert and Heather Gold and junior Rose Milless seeing time.
But, for eight seniors, it will be a season to remember.
"I'm just tickled pink," said Beachy. "I couldn't have imagined this at midseason. There were just little nuances that we needed to change. They were just a great group of girls."
Don't count the Cardinals out of making another run to the state basketball tournament. Sophomore Michelle Honek will lead a talented returning group next season that will hopefully prevent another 17-year drought.
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