Cooper guard Ty'neecia Longs goes for a layup against Benilde-St. Margaret's in the Section 6 final last Thursday. Cooper advanced to the state tournament for the first time. Photo: Ellen Schmidt, Star Tribune
A metro-area suburban school thrust into the role of favorite. A smaller southern Minnesota town facing longer odds. One thing Cooper and Mankato West share, however, is Class 3A girls’ basketball state tournament newcomer status.
That and head coaches who once stood in the sneakers of their players. Cooper’s Kiara Buford made four state tournament trips with St. Paul Central, winning championships in 2007 and 2008. Julia Battern, a 2006 Marshall graduate, played at state twice and her team finished second as a senior.
Both women, in their fourth seasons as head coaches, will lead their teams Wednesday at Williams Arena. Top-seed Cooper (26-2) of New Hope plays at 10 a.m. against Alexandria (23-5). At 2 p.m., Mankato West (21-7) tips off against No. 2 seed Northfield (25-3), a team that beat the Scarlets twice this season.
Buford kept a talented team humble and hungry as victories and expectations piled up. Battern, meanwhile, instilled belief among players in their own potential.
“Last season we won our first playoff game in forever and the girls got a taste of the excitement and atmosphere of playing in big games,” Battern said. “They came into this season with that idea of getting to state already in their heads.”
Getting there meant beating Waseca, the team that ended the Scarlets’ 2016-17 season in the semifinals, in the section final.
“The girls who were used to not winning many games and early playoff losses started to believe,” Battern said.
Until this season, Cooper could relate. The Hawks’ previous assignment, Class 4A, Section 6, meant battling heavyweights Wayzata and Hopkins. Their postseason fortunes dramatically changed when the program dropped from Class 4A to 3A.
“We beefed up our schedule because we were working toward being able to compete with Wayzata and Hopkins,” Buford said. “We didn’t expect to be dropped to 3A, but it’s played in our favor.”
Cooper and Mankato West are new faces in a field featuring five returning teams. Both coaches hope their players, as Buford said, remember “we haven’t done anything yet. There’s more to achieve.
“We’re happy making history, but we’re not satisfied,” she said.