By PATRICK SLACK
Not wanting to show favoritism, Paul Pelzer made his seventh grade daughter prove she belonged on a daily basis, pushing her unlike any other player.
Now, the time for proving is over and there’s no question where she belongs: among Minnesota’s elite.
This year, the junior Record Player of the Year helped Upsala advance further than it ever has, as the Cardinals won a sub-section championship and set a school record with 28 wins, earning her a spot on the Class A All-State team.
It’s been a quick transformation for the program, one that was competitive within the conference when Pelzer joined it, but not yet at the top.
But instead of being able to watch and learn from the bench, Pelzer was thrust into action when the squad’s starting point guard broke her wrist with 12 games remaining in the season.
Fortunately, she had been battle-tested beforehand.
Her start in organized basketball began on a third grade traveling team, but even more important were the countless hours spent playing, and occasionally fighting, with her brother in the backyard.
“Ever since I was younger I always played with my brother,” she said. “I would put on his basketball clothes and wear one of his hats backwards and we would play downstairs on a Little Tikes basketball hoop.”
Pelzer used the competitive nature cultivated during that time to grow up as a player in a hurry, closing out the season by averaging about five points and four assists per game.
In her first full season as an eighth grader, she helped Upsala put together a winning season, scoring 291 points and dishing out 125 assists as the Cardinals went 14-10.
Those numbers were good.
But when her freshman season rolled around, she was ready to break out from good to great.
On the way to her first of what has now been three-consecutive Prairie Conference Most Valuable Player Award-winning seasons, she had 476 points and 144 assists.
The Cardinals swept through conference play, finishing with a 20-5 record before falling to Sebeka in the sub-section finals.
Pelzer and the Cardinals were even better the following year, going 24-2 with a perfect Prairie mark before once again dropping its postseason match-up with Sebeka.
Pelzer’s point total increased slightly, while she continued to progress into an even more prolific passer with 198 assists, 7.6 per game.
“The last few years it has been so nice not having to worry about getting the ball up the court against presses,” coach Pelzer said. “Her poise and ability to handle the ball and handle pressure from opposing teams made it so much easier and it took added pressure off her teammates.”
“Most of the time it takes more than one to defend her, sometimes three,” he said. “Reading the defense and getting rid of the ball before a trap or a dangerous situation arises aggravates opposing defenders.” Having come so close to the section championship game in back-to-back years, Upsala entered this season with the poise and experience to move closer to state.
The start couldn’t have been much better, as Upsala took a 25-0 lead in its season opener against Long Prairie-Grey Eagle in a 64-34 win.
The Cardinals continued to breeze through December before suffering their only regular season loss in their holiday tournament to Class AA’s second-ranked Staples-Motley.
Upsala bounced right back after the calendar flipped to 2012, taking on section opponent Isle.
For the third time during the season, Pelzer came up one assist or steal shy of a triple-double in a come-from-behind win. Normally more of a distributor, Pelzer still had nine assists, as well as 10 rebounds, but she took over the game with her shooting, piling up 34 points.
“I describe myself as a pass first kind of player,” she said. “I look to create opportunities for my teammates, but if I’m open I’m not afraid to shoot.”
“She is the most unselfish player that I have ever coached,” coach Pelzer said. “She would rather have an assist than score. In fact, she sometimes overpasses when she should take the shot.”
Pelzer continued to do plenty of both during the heart of the conference schedule in January.
But she saved her biggest performances for the team’s biggest games.
Squaring off against Sebeka, Jan. 27, Upsala sailed to a 76-58 win, with Pelzer scoring 30 points and distributing 10 assists, outshining a team that featured two all-state standouts, including a senior guard that struggled in the head-to-head match-up against Pelzer.
Many opponents have experienced similar frustrations.
At 5-foot-9, Pelzer has the quickness and athleticism to defend and frustrate guards, while also possessing long arms and a strong frame to match up against post players when called on.
Those same attributes make her an opposing coach’s nightmare on offense.
Guard her with one defender and she has the ability to create her own shot and more room to see the floor.
Double or triple team her and she has the willingness and capability to locate teammates.
Her passing success is primarily a result of “my ability to see the court and knowing that my teammates will be at the right spots at the right time,” she said.
With another undefeated conference season wrapped up, Upsala traveled to third-ranked Parkers Prairie for one final tune-up heading into the postseason, Feb. 27.
Going up against another all-state guard, Pelzer had an even bigger performance.
After the Panthers broke a tie with three seconds remaining, Pelzer took the ensuing inbound pass and drove all the way to the hoop, hitting a buzzer-beating shot to send the game in overtime.
She continued her clutch play in overtime, hitting all six of her free throw attempts to put away a thrilling 82-78 win during which she scored 39 points.
“That was such a crazy game,” she said.
Following a pair of easy wins, Upsala once again got the better of Sebeka in the sub-section championship, March 6, winning 64-57, to finally advance to the section finals.
But in a rematch with Isle, the Huskies used a powerful run late in the first half and into the second to pull away with the section title.
Pelzer’s scoring increased to 20.7 points per game this season, with the guard exhibiting remarkable consistency by reaching double figures in every game.
But while a lot of great players can score, few can pass like Pelzer.
“Her skills at this level are phenomenal,” coach Pelzer said. “It’s great to hear other high school coaches as well as college coaches comment on her passing.”
“She has eyes in the back of her head,” he said. “Her court vision is unbelievable. Yes, she can shoot too, but her passing is second to none. Her no look passes are a lost art in high school basketball. She makes everyone around her better.”
With one year remaining, Pelzer hasn’t made a final decision on where she will play college basketball, only that she plans to. Until then, she hopes to help the Cardinals take the final step and qualify for state.
And despite a few early bumps in the road, both deeply enjoy the father-daughter dynamic shared on the court.
“I like having my dad as a coach,” she said. “I enjoy him coaching me. He is very hard on me, and if he ever has to yell at someone, it’s always me.”
“I don’t mind it, though,” she said. “It actually helps my game out and makes me work harder.”
“I have to admit that I was much more strict and critical with her than any other player,” coach Pelzer said. “It made her stronger and a much more respected player.”
“It has been an indescribable awesomeness,” he said. “We went through growing pains because she started playing at a high level so young. She had to prove she belonged, which she did.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, game-by-game
LPGE: 20 points, 11 assists, 9 steals, 4 rebounds
Pillager: 21 points, 7 assists, 6 stls, 4 rebounds
Browerville: 17 points, 7 assists, 6 rebs, 2 steals
SJ Prep: 20 points, 5 steals, 4 rebs, 3 assists
Osakis: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals, 5 assists
Maple Lake: 22 points, 11 rebs, 9 assists, 4 steals
Staples-Motley: 17 points, 7 rebs, 6 assists, 3 stls
Isle: 34 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 6 steals
Eagle Valley: 21 points, 9 rebs, 5 assists, 3 steals
West Central: 15 points, 14 assists, 6 stls, 5 rebs
Swanville: 12 points, 5 rebs, 5 assists, 3 steals
PR-Backus: 22 points, 7 rebs, 3 assists, 3 steals
Royalton: 11 points, 12 assists, 7 rebs, 2 steals
LPGE: 23 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 steal
Onamia: 19 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 stls
Sebeka: 30 points, 10 assists, 2 rebs, 1 steal
Browerville: 13 points, 11 assists, 4 rebs, 2 steals
Holdingford: 22 points, 10 assists, 6 stls, 4 rebs
Osakis: 24 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists
Eagle Valley: 27 points, 8 rebs, 7 assists, 2 steals
West Central: 14 points, 11 assists, 5 stls, 4 rebs
Bertha-Hewitt: 28 points, 8 assists, 4 rebs, 3 stls
SJ Prep: 26 points, 7 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 stls
Swanville: 21 points, 7 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 stls
Royalton: 14 points, 11 assists, 5 rebs, 4 steals
Parkers Prairie: 39 points, 7 rebs, 6 assists, 3 stls
Section 5A tournament
Verndale: 19 points, 7 steals, 5 assists, 4 rebs
Walker-HA: 16 points, 14 assists, 5 rebs, 3 steals
Sebeka: 17 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 steals
Isle: 16 points, 7 steals, 6 rebounds, 3 assists
Points: 620 (20.7 per game)
Assists: 234 (7.8)
Rebounds: 164 (5.5)
Steals: 121 (4.0)
Blocks: 36 (1.2)
Field goals: 221-for-479 (46.1 percent)
Three-pt. field goals: 75-for-188 (39.9 percent)
Free throws: 103-for-125 (82.4 percent)