The Cambridge-Isanti girls basketball team’s journey to the Class 4A State Tournament included a few bumps.
The Bluejackets suffered an 85-55 loss to Hopkins in the opening round of the tournament in a game played at Williams Arena Wednesday, March 11. The next day C-I saw its season end the next morning with a 70-62 setback to Park Center at Concordia in a game that was much closer than the final score.
But that 0-2 finish was not at all representative of the season the Bluejackets enjoyed, whether you look at the season as a whole or the tournament run in particular.
“Not at all,” Bluejackets coach Jody Ledahl agreed. “We came in to this tournament and gave two outstanding efforts. I thought we represented Cambridge-Isanti really well. We walk out of here with our heads held high, feeling great about what we’ve accomplished.”
Those accomplishments include a 20-10 overall record and a Class 4A Section 7 title that produced the school’s first state tournament appearance since 1999. And those accomplishments are a tribute to the coaching staff and roster, especially a senior class that has shown a great deal of development over the past few years.
“Two years ago there were times we struggled to get the ball past half-court,” senior center Jana Swanson said. “It was amazing to reach this point.”
The Hopkins game
Talk about a tall order: Cambridge-Isanti’s first opponent in the state tournament was Hopkins, the defending Class 4A Champions and a team with a 60-game win streak. The Royals roster included the top-ranked high school player in the country, Paige Bueckers, as the headliner of a talented cast.
The game plan for the Bluejackets was simple: be aggressive.
“We had nothing to lose,” Ledahl said. “If you’re back on your heels, it’s going to be harder to play against them. So we tried to attack them. But they had some amazing blocks and impressive plays.”
Cambridge-Isanti struggled with turnovers early, committing seven in the first 10 minutes to fall behind 17-8. The Bluejackets had 12 turnovers in the first half, surrendering 18 points off turnovers, and trailed 54-24 at the break.
“There were stretches in the first half where the game got away from us,” Ledahl admitted. “So at halftime we came in and regrouped. … Hopkins took their press off at halftime, but we ran our offense at a high level in the second half. I couldn’t be more proud of the effort our players gave against Hopkins.”
For much of the second half Cambridge-Isanti played with the talented Royals, outscoring Hopkins 24-13 to cut the deficit to 67-48 with 5:52 to play before Hopkins used a late run to pull away.
“We knew we had to close the paint and defend well,” Swanson said. “And we knew that, if they hit their shots, they hit their shots. What else could we do?”
Amme Sheforgen scored 13 points to lead the Bluejackets, while Jackie Olander and Swanson each had 10 points. Swanson nearly had a double-double, adding nine rebounds.
The outcome of the game did not change the feelings C-I had after playing at Williams Arena, the home of the University of Minnesota basketball teams.
“For everyone involved in girls basketball in Minnesota, that’s the dream: To experience playing on the court at Williams Arena,” Ledahl said. “I was super-excited to have the opportunity, and I know the kids were in awe of being able to play there.”
The Park Center game
Wednesday’s loss meant the Bluejackets would move to the consolation bracket of the tournament, where things did not get any easier. Their next opponent was Park Center, which was ranked No. 4 in the final Class 4A rankings.
In that contest Cambridge-Isanti got off to a quick 12-6 lead, only to see the Pirates score the next 18 points to hold a 24-12 advantage with 5:16 left in the half. During that decisive run the Bluejackets missed nine straight shots and were outrebounded 14-2, including five offensive boards that led to second-chance points for Park Center.
“They were quicker to the ball than us, and we could have done a better job of boxing out,” Ledahl said. “But they were ranked fourth in the state coming in to the tournament, and we took whatever they dished out – and responded.”
C-I cut its deficit to 30-24 at halftime, then rallied with a 13-3 run that made the score 43-42 with 9:10 to play. The Bluejackets managed to tie the score at 57-57 with 2:49 on the clock, but Park Center scored the game’s next 4 points, and the Bluejackets came no closer than 2 points the rest of the way.
“That’s been their attitude for four years,” Ledahl said. “For the seniors, their first two years on the varsity were such a struggle, but they had a ‘never quit’ attitude. They kept the faith, and they showed that attitude the past few weeks.”
Swanson led four Bluejackets in double figures with 18 points, all of them coming in the second half, while adding 11 rebounds. Mikayla Aumer had 17 points, Sheforgen scored 13 and Olander finished with 10 points and six assists.
Park Center’s Adalia McKenzie, a junior with scholarship offers from several Big Ten schools, finished with 35 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Pirates, while Aaliyah Ragulen and Alivia McGill each added 11 points.
When asked after the Park Center game if she had thought about the fact that her season – and her high school career – was over, Swanson said, “It hasn’t hit me yet. I have another chapter [in college]. I still am writing the book. But overall it was an amazing experience. It was really fun to be there.”