Megan Walstad talked with head coach Molly Kasper during practice. (ANTHONY SOUFFLE/Star Tribune)
Losses have been few and far between for the Eastview girls’ basketball team the past few seasons.
The Lightning has lost just 14 games since capturing the Class 4A state title in 2014. It won 82 games during that span while extending its streak of consecutive state semifinal appearances to six, going back to 2012.
It’s the 14 losses that coach Molly Kasper focused on when figuring out what her team needed to do to improve this winter in her third season at the helm.
Whether it was fighting Lakeville North for loose balls during South Suburban Conference play or establishing rebounding position against Hopkins at the state tournament, Kasper wanted her players to be stronger. She implemented a team weightlifting and fitness program in the offseason, rather than have players work out on their own. She said she could tell right away her players were better prepared when official practices began three weeks ago.
“We’ve left disappointed the last two years,” said Kasper, whose teams have lost to Hopkins in the semifinals before winning the third-place game at state the past two years. “We felt like we were kind of getting outmuscled, and we weren’t coming down with some of those 50-50 balls. The weightlifting has been a huge boost for us.”
The Lightning looked ready to go Thanksgiving weekend when it defeated White Bear Lake and Orono in the Pat Paterson tournament at Hutton Arena in St. Paul. Despite playing for the first time without three graduated seniors who averaged a combined 33 points per game last season, Eastview played nine players in a 61-44 victory over White Bear Lake, a team that won 20 games and reached the state tournament last season.
Leading the charge were senior captains Megan Walstad and Mariah Alipate. Walstad, who will play at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next season, was a dominant force in the paint last season. The 6-2 forward averaged 20 points, eight rebounds and five blocks on her way to a spot on the all-tournament team for the second consecutive year.
“When the lights are the biggest, [Walstad] shines the brightest. She’s been Miss Consistent and now is her time to shine even a little bit more,” Kasper said. “She’s one of the best defensive players around, she’s consistent, she’s coachable and she can play inside and outside. She does it all.”
Alipate returned to the court for the first time after missing all last season because of an ACL injury. In addition to scoring, defense and rebounding, the St. Cloud State signee provides experience at the other forward spot after playing in the state tournament as an eighth-grader, freshman and sophomore.
Alipate is joined in the frontcourt by 6-foot seniors Andrea Abrams and Courtney Carson, 6-2 junior Jordan Morris and junior Lauren Glas, who made three three-pointers off the bench against White Bear Lake.
“We can really outsize a lot of teams, but we’re all shooters, too. That makes it hard for teams to guard us,” Walstad said. “They have to guard the post and the three-point line and, I think, that’s where we have an advantage.”
Defenses also have to step out to defend junior guard Macy Guebert, who averaged 5.6 points per game last season and already has committed to South Dakota. She’s joined in the backcourt by junior point guard Emma Carpenter, who gained valuable varsity experience last season. Freshman guard Cassidy Carson came off the bench last weekend and averaged 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.
While the Lightning has once again set some ambitious on-court goals, such as winning a seventh consecutive section title and overtaking Lakeville North in the South Suburban Conference, in the short term it is concentrating on living up to its team motto: “Zoom Out.”
“That’s something we all came up with together. It means we all have to be selfless players, not selfish, and focus on the team as a whole and what we want to accomplish together,” Walstad said. “We would love to win all our games and win state, but I really want to know at the end of the season that we all played our hardest and became a family.”