Senior center Annika Hoff, in middle above, has played more than 100 games for Northfield.
The Northfield girls’ basketball team brings two traits to the court on a daily basis that aren’t commonplace in today’s game. Players enjoy sharing the ball with each other on offense, and they get an even greater satisfaction from shutting down their opponents defensively.
That approach has led to a 17-3 record heading into Thursday’s game at Mankato West and a No. 5 ranking in Class 3A, according to Minnesota Basketball News. Coach Tony Mathison’s squad is on the brink of posting back-to-back 20-win seasons.
The Raiders have been motivated since last season ended with a 59-40 loss to Winona in the Section 1 championship. They had split two games with the Winhawks during the regular season.
This season’s team includes three starters from last year and four reserves who played valuable minutes.
“We weren’t ready yet as a team,” Raiders senior guard and co-captain Grace Touchette said. “It’s a different level than the regular season. You have to be at your best.”
Touchette also hopes the Raiders’ stage fright in section play is a thing of the past.
“We’ve been nervous for our section tournament games in the Rochester Civic Center. It’s a completely different environment,” Touchette said. “I think our nervousness will be gone this year.”
The Raiders are only allowing 42.3 points per game, the fifth fewest in Class 3A. That is an improvement of nearly three points per game from a year ago.
“Defense is the main aspect of our game,” Touchette said. “We take a lot of pride in our defense, and shutting people down.”
Meanwhile, their offensive average has increased nearly two points to 57.5 points per game.
“This team has stayed focused and continues to work to get better each day,” Mathison said. “Our maturity and experience have been the leading factors in our success to this point.”
Northfield’s top seven players are averaging between 13.1 and 4.6 points per game. It has had seven players score in double figures this season.
“The keys to our season have been our unselfish play on the offensive end and our willingness to get after it on the defensive side,” Mathison said. “I speak for our entire coaching staff when I say how fun it is to have the opportunity to work with them every day.”
Touchette leads the offense in scoring, and also averages 3.8 assists per game. She and fellow senior co-captain Annika Hoff, a 6-3 center, have played over 100 games for the Raiders.
“Our seniors are really a close, tight-knit group,” Touchette said. “We have a really good team atmosphere, on and off the court. It makes playing as a team a lot easier.”
The tandem is joined in the starting lineup by senior Clara Noack and juniors 6-1 Emma Carlson and 6-0 Rachel Kelly. Key players off the bench include seniors Taylor Ernste and 6-1 Annalee Olson-Sola and freshmen Lizzie Berkvam and Annika Richardson.
“Having balanced scoring is really good for us,” Touchette said. “Sharing the ball is important to us. Not having to rely on two of three players is awesome.”
All of which hopefully leads to the Raiders’ first state tournament berth since 2010. Their only other appearance was in 1979, when they were the Class 2A runners-up.
In all likelihood, the Raiders will also find themselves in a different role — the favorite to win the Section 1 championship.
“We’ll have to be ready, and expect everybody to give us their best game,” Touchette said.