Girls Basketball: Wingers prepare for state tourneyRed Wing’s Toivonen continues to impress as the Wingers head to state for the second year in a row.
By: Chris Harrell, The Republican Eagle
Red Wing’s Marisa Toivonen is humble.
She is soft-spoken and may even appear shy at times but deep down there is a competitive fire that pushes her to be the best.
A two-sport star with the Wingers before this basketball season, Toivonen became a budding star on the court for the Red Wing girls basketball team by averaging 17 points, just less than 10 rebounds and more than two blocks per game.
Her performance doesn’t come as a surprise to Wingers head coach Dave Muelken.
“She’s doing what we thought she would be all along,” Muelken said. “She’s done it all year, right from the start. She’s just never let up and she has played some of her best games against good teams … she makes everybody else better.”
Toivonen, a senior, who signed to play golf for Division II Augustana College next year, said her heart was never fully in basketball but this season is unique.
“This year’s been different,” Toivonen said, who also played at No. 1 singles for the girls tennis team. “I fell in love with it this year. It’s been a lot of fun and I just love playing.”
Toivonen, a 5-foot-11 post player, couldn’t help but enjoy her impressive performance in the Wingers’ Section 1AAA finals victory against Kasson-Mantorville. The win sent Red Wing to the Class 3A girls state basketball tournament as she scored 27 points to go along with 13 rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes of play.
“She’s a beast,” senior A.J. LaFond said of Toivonen. “You feel safe when the ball is in her hands. She’s definitely the most improved.”
Last season, Toivonen averaged 7.46 points per game and three rebounds in 28 games off the bench. She also shot just 59 percent from the free-throw line, a place where she’s had tremendous success this year. Toivonen got to the line 195 times during the regular season and made 71 percent of her attempts.
Another reason for her success is her ability to use either hand to score at the rim and keep defenses honest, Muelken said.
“She’s just as good with her left hand as her right,” Muelken said. “You’ve got to play her straight up.”
Toivonen’s breakout has allowed junior Tesha Buck, a Division I University of Wisconsin-Green Bay recruit, to worry less about the scoring burden. Buck is averaging 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and nearly four steals per game and she is also making 40 percent of her 3-point attempts with the added room created by Toivonen’s low-post dominance.
Going into today’s matchup against top-seeded Richfield (25-4), ranked third in Class 3A, the Wingers (19-10) will have their hands full.
The Spartans also boast one of the top players in the state in junior Jessica January. January is rated in the top 100 players nationally in the 2013 class according to ESPN High School’s HoopGurlz’s rankings and the Richfield point guard averaged 22 points per game during the regular season.
In the Section 6AAA playoffs January continued to pour in points, averaging 27 points per game, including a 39-point outburst against Holy Family Catholic School in the section final.
“She’s going to score,” Muelken said. “We want to make her work harder than she has all year and keep her in front of us.”
But she’s not the only Spartan that can score. According to the Minnesota Girls Basketball Hub, Richfield has three other players averaging double figures in scoring. Hannah Wise scores 10 points per game and Muelken said she is a top 3-pointer shooter Red Wing needs to account for.
The tasks of slowing down January and Wise will fall to LaFond and junior McKenna Schaffer, the team’s defensive specialists. Schaffer and LaFond draw the tough defensive assignments each game and their similar statures make them almost interchangeable, Muelken said.
“I’m just looking forward to another challenge,” LaFond said. “Once you get out there your nerves go away. They’re just another player.”
Schaffer went a step further in her anticipation for the matchup with the Spartans.
“I’m so excited to play against (January),” Schaffer said. “I like a challenge … I know I won’t be perfect on her but I got to let it go.
“I like frustrating other people and especially the best players who think they are ‘all that.’ Coach always says, ‘Make them never want to see you again,’ and that’s my mindset.”
The first few minutes against Richfield will be important for the Wingers to gain some confidence, Muelken said. The unfamiliarity between the two teams could be an asset, LaFond said, but a quick start like Red Wing had against K-M would provide needed momentum against the top-seeded team in the tournament.
“If we start well, they’ll know they can’t get it easy,” Buck said. “It’s just coming out ready to play our defense and not turning the ball over.”
The Wingers defeated rival New Prague in the section finals last season before being eliminated in the first round of the state tournament by top-seeded Hill-Murray. Toivonen remembers how great it felt to get to the state tournament but her sights are set a little higher.
“I think it means a little more this year,” Toivonen said. “I want to contribute and help the team win a couple games … it’s my last year so I don’t want this to end.”
Red Wing’s first round game of the Class 3A tourney begins at 10 a.m. at Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.