Girls Basketball: Cougars get first try at state tournamentZUMBROTA — The significance of a state tournament appearance isn’t lost on Zumbrota-Mazeppa girls basketball head coach Scott Paukert and his players.
By: Nick Gerhardt, The Republican Eagle
ZUMBROTA — The significance of a state tournament appearance isn’t lost on Zumbrota-Mazeppa girls basketball head coach Scott Paukert and his players.
The Cougars secured their first trip to the Class 2A state tournament with a 56-52 win over Chatfield in the Section 1AA title game last Thursday as a No. 4 seed. Z-M had never appeared in a section title game prior to this season. Zumbrota made a regional final appearance in 1983 and the two schools didn’t merge until 1987.
“The girls probably don’t realize it but we’ve kind of got a footprint in history right now,” Paukert said. “Me, personally, I never thought I’d be coaching a team at the state tournament.”
Paukert is in his second stint as head coach. He stepped down in 2001 due to medical reasons after coaching the team for the previous 11 seasons.
When he returned four years ago he came back with a different perspective and that’s helped as the team overcame a 4-8 start to win nine of its final 12 games, including a seven-game winning streak heading into its quarterfinal matchup with Section 8AA champion Pequot Lakes Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Williams Arena.
“When you’re young you gauge yourself on wins and losses as to how good of a job you’re doing,” Paukert said. “But when I had a chance to step back and then come back it’s more about the journey and the relationships with the girls. It’s not all about the end, where you end at the end, it’s about the experience. So I know for me that’s taken a lot of the pressure off myself. Even when we started 4-8, I just didn’t put that pressure on myself.”
Z-M (17-11) didn’t face a lot of pressure or expectations as a four seed entering the section tournament and that allowed the team to play relaxed throughout its run, which included knocking off No. 1 seed and sixth-ranked Pine Island, second-seeded Stewartville and second-seeded Chatfield.
What’s also helped is the presence of senior Ashley Hinsch. Hinsch, who missed all of last season due to a shoulder injury, scored 31 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists in the section title victory. In the final two games of the section playoffs, Hinsch finished with 53 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Hinsch set a school record for points in a season and averaged 16 points per game average. She established a single-season mark for assists with 122 and holds the school record for career assists.
Hinsch signed with the University of Minnesota, Duluth to play volleyball next fall.
“In these last couple of games Ashley’s just been tremendous,” Paukert said. “I’ve never had a player like her in 15 years and I’ll probably never have another just because she can do so many things.”
Hinsch runs the offense for the Cougars and she is the cog in the wheel that makes the whole machine go.
“It’s helped a lot,” Z-M junior Geena Miller said. “We needed a person to set up the plays and keep us going and she helped us out a lot with that.”
Despite Hinsch’s return this season the Cougars got off to a slow start as they had to adjust to playing with Hinsch again. Z-M also got Laura Brunner back. Brunner averaged 9.2 points per game this season after coming back from a knee injury she suffered last season. Brunner’s return helped solidify a team that finished 7-16 without her and Hinsch.
“I love not having to worry about it because I don’t ever feel it,” Hinsch said of her shoulder injury. “I just like having the whole season to be back.”
Pequot Lakes (19-11) returns to the state tournament for the second consecutive year after a 55-52 triple overtime victory over seventh-ranked Hawley in the Section 8AA championship. The Patriots entered the tournament as a three seed and feature a prolific scorer in Mattie Lueck. Lueck averages 19.2 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game. Pequot Lakes lost last season in the first round of the state tournament 77-66 to eventual champion Braham.
“We just have to worry about their transition because if it’s open, they’re throwing it,” Paukert said.
In practice Monday the Cougars paid careful attention to rebounding after the Patriots grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in the second half and overtimes last Friday.
Z-M will rely on leading rebounder Amber Jentsch inside to clear up some of the loose balls. Jentsch led the Cougars with 5.8 rebounds per game.
The winner of Wednesday’s game will move on to face the winner of the Providence Academy-Minnehaha Academy quarterfinal game Friday at 8 p.m. at Target Center.