While no area girls' basketball team advanced to the state tournament last season, a number of programs enjoyed breakout years.
The first is the Aitkin Gobblers, who finished the year 26-2 and advanced to their first-ever Section 7-2A final.
The lone returning starter from that squad is Meredith Chaput. The junior forward is one of four returning players named to the Dispatch's All-Area team. Chaput, along with seniors Kristy Hoge, Allie Carlson and Lena Montano, are the only players who saw significant time last year.
Chaput was second in the area in total points (508) and points per game (18.1). She also added 90 rebounds, 112 assists, 55 steals and 12 blocked shots.
Another team making it to a section final was the Crosby-Ironton Rangers, who fell to East Grand Forks in the Section 8-2A final.
Returning to the Rangers is three-year starter Katie Swanhorst, who averaged 9.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists. Also back is junior guard Jana Anderson, who averaged 8.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. Other seniors out include Cassie Valentino, Kendra Perpich and Whitney Cragun.
The third team in a section final last year was the Little Falls Flyers, who finished 18-10. The Flyers return three of their top six scorers, led by junior forward Paige Beseman, who averaged a team-high 11.3 points to go with 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 assist.
Point guard Megan Voss returns with her 6.1 points, 1.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds. Sophomore Whitney Weisz was the first player off the bench, averaging 9.2 points and 6.9 rebounds.
"Paige will probably handle the ball a lot more this year than she did last year and hopefully that will open up Megan for more 3-point attempts," said Flyers head coach Deb Yliniemi-Ahlin. "Megan has an incredible 3-pointer so those two will share that responsibility this year. With Whitney we're hoping she fills that role of rebounder because the three seniors we graduated did a good job of that for us."
Look for the Flyers to be quicker this season, but don't expect last year's success to make them complacent.
Emily Lueck returns after making the all-area team last season. Lueck was fourth in the area with 404 total points and 14.4 per game. She added 118 rebounds, 151 assists and 72 steals.
Other than the Pine River-Backus Tigers, the Patriots have the top number of returners. Junior guard Kylie Beltz returns her 8.5 points and 2.9 assists. Sophomore Mattie Lueck averaged 7.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Senior forward Kirsten Noska averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds and senior Katelyn Schmidt added 5.3 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Also back are senior Sarah Thomas and juniors Kayla Wangen, Kendra Johnson and Jessica Johnson.
The only new face to speak of is head coach Jon Dale, who last coached girls' basketball in 1996-97. He takes over for departed hall of fame coach Bob Nelson.
"A couple of the girls came and asked me if I would," said Dale. "Before that it wasn't even a question. But after I thought about it for a while and not having any conflicts with my older boys I thought it would be fun to get back in it again.
"We have four starters back, but we're going to miss Missy Howard. The hardest part for me is blending in the things I want to do, maybe play more up-tempo, press a little more, with the many things that don't need fixing."
Katie Wangberg led the area in total points (555), points per game (19.1) and field goal percentage (54.8). She was second in steals with 132, helping the PR-B Tigers to the Northwoods Conference title and an 18-11 record. She, along with everyone else, returns to the Tigers, who will compete in Section 5-1A this season with teams like state runner-up Barnum and Bertha-Hewitt.
"It will be nice to play some different people," said Tigers coach Randy Schwegel. "We don't have any new faces this year and things are going so much better this year because the girls are so far ahead of where they were last year at this time. They know the offense and defense. Their memory is quicker to grab the things we want to do."
Other returners are freshman Tatum Sheley, who averaged 9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. Junior Hannah Lemberg averaged 9.8 points and 2.2 rebounds. Freshman Autumn Ackerman contributed 4.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. Junior Kendra Hamilton recorded 3.3 points and 2.8 rebounds a game.
One setback for the Tigers will be the absence of junior Tiffany Smith, who will likely miss the entire season with an ACL injury. She averaged 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds.
"We're still going to try and push the ball and be aggressive that way, but we were hoping for a little more depth," Schwegel said. "With Tiffany gone that will be tough."
Nikki Pearson is the final all-area player returning. Last season she helped the Staples-Motley Cardinals to a 16-11 record with her 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 steals a game.
Also back for the Cardinals are senior forward Caitlin Robinson, who averaged 9.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists.
Completing S-M's roster are seniors Caitlin Robinson, Savanna Hill and Ashley Lisson, junior Abby Smith and sophomore Kelsey Rice.
While no area team is favored to win its section, that doesn't mean a surprise couldn't happen.
jeremy millsop, sports writer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5856.
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