In the closing minutes of what would become Holdingford’s eighth win in nine tries this season, senior Joelle Ertl went up for a routine layup … and missed.
It was a rare moment of mortality in an otherwise extraordinary season for the 5-foot-6 guard who has been a transformational figure for a Huskers team that went just 5-20 a year ago.
With her typical consistency, Ertl surpassed 20 points for the seventh time this winter in a 56-30 win at Swanville, Jan. 3, netting 24 more to go along with eight steals, six assists and five rebounds.
While the Huskers expected some improvement this year with four of five starters returning, including Ertl, the team wasn’t quite sure it should anticipate an 8-1 record at the season’s mid-point when the winter began.
“Going into this season, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Holdingford head coach Ashley Hoffmann said. “We knew it could go either way. We knew it was going to come down to what the girls did day in and day out. I believe there are a couple of things that have helped with this turnaround.
“First, the girls worked extremely hard in the offseason,” she said. “They put a lot of time in this summer. Second, we rehauled our team focus and goals on defense and offense. We changed things up to focus on our team and individual strengths. We wanted to give our girls the best opportunity to succeed based on their abilities.
“Finally, it comes down to the girls,” she said. “They have really come in each day and worked their tails off this season. They give us their very best every day and they genuinely want to be around each other. We can’t ask for more than that.”
On top of that, the more experienced roster is now aware of what it takes to put away close games, after dropping seven of its eight games decided by 10 points or less last year.
“We have learned how to finish games this year,” Ertl said. “Last year we were in a lot of games, but we could never put a full 36 minutes together. Also, only losing one senior last year helps. We now have a year of experience playing with each other.”
One of those players Ertl has grown used to playing alongside is fellow senior Sam Maciej, who has emerged as a reliable No. 2 option and reached double figures again with 10 points versus Swanville.
Getting that type of production from other players is key for the Huskers, who know going into every game that opponents will do anything they can to stop Ertl.
“We pretty much expect going in to each game the opposing team will put some sort of specific defense on her,” Hoffmann said. “This is something we practice every day in practice.
“Our girls have done a nice job of playing through this stuff and taking advantage of it during games,” she said. “Joelle also knows this and does a nice job handling it. She also knows it’s important to get her teammates involved early.”
“We practice for those situations a lot in practice and we have seen that in a majority of our games, so as a team we adapt to those situations,” Ertl said.
The wide array of tools Ertl has at her disposable, offensively as a scorer and distributor and defensively on the boards and as a tenacious defender, also ensures that no matter what she faces, she’ll be able to impact every game.
“She has a lot of strengths and we rely a lot on all of those strengths every game,” Hoffmann said. “I think a piece of her game that is often overlooked is her ability to play extremely hard for a long period of time. We go into every game expecting her to play the entire game. She doesn’t get a lot of time to rest.
“I also think her ability to rebound for her size (is impressive),” she said. “She led us last year in rebounding and will again this season.”
Ertl has grabbed at least five rebounds every game so far this year, while improving her passing ability to the point that she is now averaging more than four assists per game, a valuable skill to make opponents pay for double-teaming her.
“It’s extremely important,” Hoffmann said. “After last season, we sat down and said this was an area she needed to improve on. She took it to heart and made it a personal goal of hers. She spent all fall watching game film from last year trying to find certain situations where her teammates were open in our offense.
“She is a super competitor and she is where she is now because of that,” she said.
The last winning season for Holdingford was when it went 15-12 in 2009-10, also the previous time it won a playoff game.
Senior Megan Auger added eight points and freshman Kailee Heinen had seven for the Huskers against Swanville.
Junior Steph Koetter had a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double and junior Danica Hanson scored eight points for the Bulldogs.
Smiejas team up to lead Cardinals past Royals
Ten different Cardinals scored as a balanced effort helped Upsala squeak past host Royalton 50-45, Jan. 3.
With the game tied at 31-31 early in the second half, Royalton senior Emily Fussy, who finished with a game-high 23 points, picked up her fourth personal foul.
Upsala took advantage of her absence by going on a 7-0 run, before Fussy returned and scored 11 of the Royals’ next 13 points to close the gap to 46-44 with a minute to play.
Royalton had a chance to tie after a foul, but only made one of two free throws.
Upsala then sealed the win at the free-throw line, with sophomore Kiley Smieja and senior Kaelin Smieja each hitting a pair.
Kaelin Smieja led the Cardinals with 14 points, freshman Katlin Welinski scored nine and Kiley Smieja picked up eight.
Junior Brooke Westrich scored four points, hauled in nine rebounds, dished out five assists and made four steals, while junior Alyssa Kuhl also contributed four points.
Fussy added nine rebounds and five steals, while the Royals had 23 offensive rebounds as a team.
Princeton’s fast start too much for Flyers
Princeton zipped to a 10-0 lead and didn’t look back, Jan. 4, defeating visiting Little Falls 71-42.
Sophomore Jordan Schuett scored a team-high 14 points, followed by sophomore Laura Fregin with seven, sophomore Sarah Gold with six and juniors Kendra Pohlman and Kristin Stewart with five apiece.
Osakis pulls away from Pierz in second half
Osakis broke open what was only a three-point differential at the break with a big second half on its way to a 63-41 win at Pierz, Jan. 4.
Three Pioneers reached double figures offensively, led by junior Shelbie Boser with 11 points and senior Tiara Hopkins and junior Kayla Carter with 10 apiece.
Senior Bridget Bednar added four points and 11 rebounds.