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Disciplined, determined: Red Wing girls basketball a late-season force in 81-82

Red Wing’s Lori Saunders (54) goes up for a basket against Burnsville’s Diane Kinney (30) during a regular-season game on Feb. 2, 1982 in Red Wing. In the 1981-82 season, Saunders was an All-Big Nine Conference selection, helping the Wingers reach the Region 1AA semifinals. (R-E file photo)

Before their move to the Missota Conference, the 1981-82 Red Wing girls basketball team knew how to end on a high note. 

In their final season in the Big Nine Conference, the Wingers finished sixth in the conference at 7-6 while putting together a 10-8 overall record. But in the 1982 postseason, Red Wing became a difficult team to finish off, getting to the Region 1AA semifinals as the seventh seed in the 16-team bracket.

“Even at the time, we probably were, if not the smallest, one of the smallest schools (in the Big Nine),” said Molly Friedrich-Nicaise, who was a senior guard on the 1981-82 team. “We didn’t really know it at the time, we never talked about it from a team perspective, but it kind of upped our game. … We really believed we could compete with some of these larger, more powerful schools.”

The man in charge of that team was George Carter, who instilled a strong sense of discipline into his players. Defensively it showed as the Wingers were the toughest team to score against in the Big Nine, holding opponents to 41.4 points per game. Offensively, the focus was making sure the team took the right shots.

“The key for the season was the team shot over 43 percent from the field,” said Carter, who had led the Red Wing girls to the state tournament in 1978. “The opposition took 102 more shots than we did. Our girls bought into shot selection: out of the starters that year, they shot 49, 42, 45, 45 and 43 percent. They were very disciplined kids.”

On the court, Red Wing was led by its seniors, namely All-Big Nine selections Lori Saunders (14.6 points/game on 49 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds/game) and Tracy Strawmatt (10.0 ppg, 45 assists).

But it was the way the coaches put the players into positions to succeed that allowed Red Wing to put together a strong postseason run.

“Coach Carter knew what we had. He knew our strong suits,” said Friedrich-Nicaise, who was named the team’s Most Valuable Player while also earning an All-Big Nine honorable mention nod. “He created plays that highlighted us as people and athletes and it worked out well. We were coached well, we listened well and we respected each other.”

Building a 20-8 lead in the first half, the Wingers rolled to a 48-30 win over future Missota opponent Apple Valley in the Region 1AA opener. The victory set up a second-round meeting with No. 2 seed Rochester John Marshall, which went 10-3 in the Big Nine and 13-4 overall in the regular season.

But, Red Wing had shown it could defeat the Rockets with a 43-41 win during the regular season. And in the playoff rematch, the slow, methodical game plan for the Wingers worked out again as Red Wing moved on with a 40-36 victory.

Once again, the Wingers’ discipline on both ends of the court made the difference. Two John Marshall players – Tara Buryska and Brenda Kappel – finished with 10 points. No other Rockets player had more than six.

“We were able to slow them down,” Carter said. “These kids (on Red Wing) were not great ball-handlers, they were not quick, but they were very disciplined kids and they became a very patient ball club. When we were patient and they played within themselves, they had as much success as they could possibly have.”

The upset win over John Marshall did not come without a major problem for the Wingers.

“I actually broke my leg in the game,” Friedrich-Nicaise said. “I got sandwiched between two girls late in the game. It was what it was and my fibula just snapped.”

The thrill of victory managed to numb the pain that night.

“I remember they were going to take me into the locker room. I think people knew my leg was broken, but I was sort of pretending, ‘No, no, no, it’s probably just a sprain, let me sit here and watch,’” Friedrich-Nicaise said. 

Red Wing saw its season end in the next round against No. 3 seed Simley. Playing at Winona State, the Wingers trailed 30-14 in the third quarter before mounting a late comeback. Saunders and Strawmatt combined for 21 of the team’s last 25 points, but it was not enough in a 42-37 loss to the Spartans.

“We had a shot, but they were able to put pressure on us up front,” Carter said about the loss.

Friedrich-Nicaise recalled, “I remember sitting in the back of the bus; it was quiet and my cast was still drying so it was a really cold ride home. … We had a great season. We went out on a mixed note for myself personally, but it was quite a season.”

Wins, losses, postseason runs and statistics only tell a fraction of the story for Carter about the 1981-82 girls basketball team’s success.

“They had a very good run at the end of the year, and they were very bright. As I look down the list, I see just a number of successful people,” Carter said. “All these people were successful after they left high school and college. Those are the big things at the end.”

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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