What this year's Brainerd Warriors girls' basketball team learned off the basketball court will last longer than anything they learned on it.
With a series of misfortunes along the way, the Warriors still managed a 13-11 final record and a first round win in the Section 8, Class 4A playoffs over St. Cloud Apollo.
The Warriors started the season on fire. They had a 10-3 record on Jan. 22. Consequently, that was close to when most of the adversity had passed.
Brainerd's first loss wasn't against Alexandria, Dec. 21. It happened long before the basketball season started when teammate and friend Krisjana Hartje died, Aug. 20, as a result of an automobile accident.
"That was probably one of the hardest things our team had to go through," said junior forward Annie Zauhar. "Losing her was a big part because she was a good friend to all of us. That was something we had to come together as a team to pull through.
"Her parents were also very helpful. Krisjana's favorite candy was Hot Tamales so they would give us Hot Tamales before every game. On senior night, we gave all the seniors Hot Tamales. It was really hard but we got through it together."
The difficulty didn't stop there as starting forward and captain Amber Haapajoki lost her father, Jon, in October to a cancer-related illness.
The loss not only affected the Haapajoki family but the community and Amber's teammates.
"That was real tough on Amber and on the team," said Zauhar. "I was in volleyball with Amber when it happened and every time she stepped into the gym you could see it still bothered her. She is a very strong person and she showed a lot of strength through the whole thing and that helped our team."
From there came the start of the season and at the first practice there was more hardship as not all the girls that were expected to come out showed up for practice. Starting center, Abbey Doyscher, was one of those girls that wasn't sure she wanted to play. After talking with head coach Carl Hendrickson and assistant coach Ron Gilbertson, she changed her mind and was back in action.
"We really didn't say very much to her (Doyscher)," said Hendrickson. "We wanted her to make up her own mind. Gilbertson saw her in the hallway and asked if she had talked to me. When she did talk to me I said I wasn't going to force her into doing it. If she wanted to come out that was great, but if she didn't I wasn't going to have any hard feelings. It was her decision.
"I just told her if you want to come out next Monday you are welcome. If you don't, I understand. That was on a Wednesday. Later that night she called coach Gilbertson and she asked him, 'Can I come tomorrow'.
"She made up her mind that was something she needed to do. I believe she was very happy that she made that decision."
The season still hadn't started when tragedy hit again. This time to the previous year's starting point guard, Brianna Holland, who fell victim to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a preseason scrimmage in Elk River.
"Losing Brianna hurt us a lot at the beginning," said Zauhar. "But Lisa (Renneke) and Megan (Arns) did a real good job of filling in for her. She was a big part of our team and we could have used her a lot.
"She was there all the time though. She was at every practice and every game so I give her credit for that. She was a real inspirational part of this team."
With all these -- more important -- aspects of life going on, the Brainerd girls still had to compete at a high level of basketball during the season.
"With Brianna going down that was something we weren't expecting," said Hendrickson. "She's such a good leader and having her presence around helped us to deal with everything really well.
"As far as Krisjana and Haapajoki, those are things we never tried to hide. We kept those things with us. We would get little notes from the Hartje family. We kept it open. We never closed the subject and that was a positive thing for us.
"When they came up we just dealt with it. Because we were open with it, we were able to deal with it more realistically and not try to hide the facts."
They overcame the adversity and played well. In memory of Hartje the girls put her initials on their warm-ups. Haapajoki received All-Conference honors and gave the Warriors leadership all year long.
Doyscher started in the center spot all year and gave the Warriors an inside defensive presence. Renneke stepped in to replace Holland at the point guard position and received All-Conference recognition and led the team in scoring.
"The things we went through definitely made us a close team," Zauhar said. "The seniors helped out a lot with that because they wanted to do well in their last year and for everyone involved. Laura Bogenschutz is a real inspirational player and she was a huge part of our team unity."
It wasn't the most successful year but it was a year that tested the character and heart of 17 high school student-athletes. They pulled together and came through to finish with a winning record and tied for second in the conference.
"I always get the question had you had Brianna and Krisjana how good would you have been," said Hendrickson. "You can't make the comparison.
"It's a real tribute to these kids dealing with these things that we couldn't control. We were able to have people step into positions and play well all through the year.
"That's the quality character of these girls. We could have folded and said our season is done. They picked it up and we had a number of games that we only lost by two points. There were a number of games that could have went either way.
"Even at that, thinking about the season as a whole and within the first two weeks, all of the things that have been talked about, people might have figured that we might win seven games. We never thought that," added Hendrickson. "We felt we had good kids and they took everything to heart and decided to play."
What the girls learned off the court will help them later in life as they endured more in a couple of months than most teams face all year.
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