Follow the unconventional path the Crookston girls' basketball team took to the Section Finals.

    Together. That one, meaningful word can often be heard in the Pirates’ huddle. Whether they lead by 40 or trail by 20, when the huddle breaks, all players and coaches shout, “Together!”

    This season, the Crookston Pirates girls’ basketball team experienced quite a bit together. They won 10 of 12 to start their season, lost eight of nine and won seven in a row. That last portion carries a little extra weight as those seven straight victories placed them in a position to do something no Pirates girls’ basketball team has done for 10 years: reach the state tournament.

    “We’re in this together,” Rachel Hefta, a senior forward for the Pirates, said. “You can’t just have one player out there doing everything. You need to have all five of you at all times all 56 minutes. We say that every single game. We have to put up a full 56 minutes, because it starts in warm-ups [20 minutes].”

    Taking this journey with the Pirates is comparable to reading a novel. First, the audience is introduced to the characters and the plot. All is well in the world and moments of happiness persist. Then comes the conflict. A problem presents itself, the protagonists face adversity and a number of daunting tasks each more perilous than the last.

    Right now, the characters are in the climax. The action that began with practices in November rises to a peak, and the audience sits on the edge of their seats as the hopes of many come down to one game.

Chapter One: A Force To Be Reckoned With

    Crookston’s start to the 2018-2019 season went rather smoothly jumping out to a 10-2 record. The Pirates averaged 55.75 points per game and held their opponents to 36.5.

    Scoring points came naturally to the Pirates. The main scoring threat came in the form of Emma Borowicz, a sophomore guard in her third year as a varsity player. Borowicz averaged 14 points per game in the first 12 and led the team in points eight times.

    But Borowicz was not the only player collecting buckets. By the time Crookston accumulated a 10-2 mark, five different players headlined the Pirates’ scoring in a single game. Currently, three different Pirates have made at least 25 three-point shots: Dani Boyle (29), Borowicz (28) and Solheim (26). Gretchen Theis and Hayden Winjum also possess the ability shoot from behind the arc with 14 treys each on the year.

    To compliment their offense, Crookston played suffocating defense. Even on nights with little offensive sparks, the Pirates’ defense allowed them to stay in games.

    “During that time, we covered gaps really well, our transition defense was really good and we were able to clamp down on teams as the game wore on,” Pirates Head Coach Darin Zimmerman said. “No matter what, no matter how a game goes, we always want to play good defense. You win games in March when you play good defense. Obviously, offense is fun too. But when you can dictate the pace of the game by the way you’re playing defense, there’s a lot of pride in that.”

    The impressive record of 10-2 caught the attention of many. But one point that came into question was strength of schedule. The final records of their first 11 opponents (they faced Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton twice in the first 12 games) combined for a win percentage of .368 (108-185). Seven of the 11 lost the first game of their section tournament. Three of the 11 finished the season above .500. Of those three, two played roles in Crookston’s two losses thus far: East Grand Forks and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, both in Crookston’s section. But still, 10-2 is 10-2, and it fared better than the 7-5 start from a year earlier.

Chapter Two: A Bump In The Road

    Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s philosophies, the Pirates did not continue their pace. The first signs of trouble came to light after a 46-30 defeat to Hibbing, the eventual Section 7AAA Champions. It was Crookston’s third loss of the season and also their third loss by double digit points.

    The very next game, the Pirates beat Badger-Greenbush-Middle River, their fifth win over a Class A team. At 11-3, all seemed well.

    Enter difficulty. The fourth loss came at the hands of Class A Ada-Borup, who currently owns a record of 25-2 and will play for the Section 6A title on Friday, March 8. Not a problem; it is just one loss to a talented team. But then another loss came. And another. And another. When the losing streak reached its peak, the once 10-2 Pirates became the 11-10 Pirates.

    “We played really, really well to start the season,” Zimmerman said. “Then, in the middle, we went through our toughest stretch. Both in terms of competition and maybe the way we played. We didn’t play terrible, but we weren’t playing a complete game. We learned a lot about ourselves during that time.”

    So what changed? How had this team that was outscoring opponents by 19.25 points per game fallen so quickly?

    The first assumption: quality of competition. Not a bad analysis. In the stretch where Crookston lost eight of nine, their nine opponents eventually posted a combined winning percentage of .732 (183-67). Seven of them reached their respective section semifinals, one already claimed a section championship and two more will play for the right to advance to state on Friday, March 8.

    “I think we got a little comfortable, because we were holding teams to under 40 points,” Kylie Solheim, a senior guard, said. “We kind of just thought our defense was good, so we started working on our offense a lot more.”

    On the Pirates’ end, numbers suggest a drop in defensive efficiency. Offense stayed consistent with the season average at 50.3 points per game, but defense went from allowing 36.5 in the first 12 games to 58.22 in the next nine.

    No doubt Crookston experienced a losing streak. But it was not all doom and gloom. After all, five of those losses came by 10 points or less.

    “Not playing a complete game was part of it,” Zimmerman said. “I thought the kids did a good job of playing hard, we were playing good competition, but it was a matter of a few possessions. Sometimes a few possessions can snowball where you’re playing well, and, all of a sudden, the team scores a couple baskets, and a tight game goes to an eight-point game. We were playing well. We just weren’t consistently getting great possessions throughout the entire game.”

Chapter Three: A Reason To Believe

    At long last, the losing streak came to an end. The Pirates beat Hawley 47-37 to conclude the unfortunate streak, and lit a spark in a team nearing the end of their regular season.

    After losing seven in a row and eight of nine, Zimmerman never saw a cause for concern.

    “This group is really mentally strong,” Zimmerman said. “The fact that we just kept bringing it and playing well against good competition, I never doubted what they wanted to do and accomplish. It is tough though. You could see it was wearing on them. But I never doubted their resolve. They kept on coming back.”

    After two more wins against section opponents, Crookston’s record grew to 14-10. Up next, a road date with then-undefeated Stephen-Argyle. One year ago, Stephen-Argyle outlasted Crookston thanks to a game-winning basket with .7 seconds to play.

    This season, the Pirates got their revenge with a 48-44 win.

    “I think Stephen-Argyle was the turning point really,” Solheim said. “They were an undefeated team, and I think, when we won that game, it made us click in our minds how good we actually can be. That turned it around for us.”

    The Stephen-Argyle game proved to be the Pirates’ last of the regular season, and the Pirates entered the postseason 15-10, 8-6 Section 8AA.

    The improved play and newfound wins came just in time for Zimmerman and his team.

    “Number one, the intensity from possession to possession just increased,” Zimmerman said. “Not that we ever played bad before, but the level of competing, the wanting to take things away from teams, that really increased. The second thing is, as well as we were playing, we were a step quicker. We were moving quicker, jumping when the ball was in the air, getting into weakside much quicker and then we stopped fouling.”

Chapter Four: The Tournament

    The regular season schedule showed one more game against Breckenridge before the section seedings were decided. A win likely led to a home tournament game for Crookston. A loss meant traveling.

    Mother Nature prevented the game from taking place, which took away any chance of a home game. The Pirates, a 10 seed, would have to travel to No. 7 Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, a team Crookston split the season series with, for the first round of the Section 8AA Tournament.

    “I think that helped us out a lot actually,” Hefta said on the seeding. “I think that was a blessing in disguise, because, honestly, if we didn’t get that seeding, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.”

    The Pirates rolled into DGF, slapped them with a 17-0 run in the second half and went on to win 64-47 for the first Crookston girls’ basketball tournament victory since 2015.

    With the first “upset” out of the way, a tall order awaited the Pirates, No. 2 Park Rapids. The Panthers beat Crookston in the regular season, but in this elimination game, the Pirates got the last laugh winning 63-48.

    “We knew no matter where we wound up, we would have matchups that we liked,” Zimmerman said. “It was a matter of focusing on the things you can control, which is the way we can play. We didn’t have control of our seeding at the end, so we knew we had to go out and play our way.”

    Their way brought them to the Section Semifinals for the first time since 2015. How fitting their opponent for this contest would be the East Grand Forks Green Wave, a team who won the previous eight matchups against Crookston including two this season.

    Hefta, Solheim and Zimmerman, who have been together since Zimmerman took over as head coach in 2015, had never beaten a Green Wave team. They certainly saw them enough. Perhaps too many times for East Grand Forks’ own good.

    “We had more adrenaline going, and we knew exactly what East Grand was going to do,” Hefta said. “We worked on what they were going to do on Monday’s practice. We made sure we were completely together as a team.”

    In the semifinals game, the Pirates never trailed. Borowicz hit a three to open the scoring, and EGF spent the rest of the game behind.

    Hundreds of Pirates fans flocked to Lysaker Gymnasium at the University of Minnesota Crookston to witness history, and when the final buzzer sounded, no authoritative force could hold back the raucous student body from storming the court and celebrating with their classmates.

    “We have such a great hometown crowd,” Hefta said. “There were so many people in the stands. They were so loud, I could hardly hear anyone on the court.”

Chapter Five: A Favorable ‘State’ To Be In

    For the first time since 2013, Crookston will play for a section championship, and the right to compete at state. A win marks their first return to the highest stage since 2008. Naturally, it will require another “upset.” This time, against No. 1 Roseau.

    The formidable Roseau Rams enter the game 27-2 and winners of the last four Section 8AA Championships. Would it shock anyone to discover Crookston nearly knocked them off during the regular season?

    In February, the Pirates trailed the Rams by 16 at home, gained a one-point lead in the second half and later made up a five-point deficit with less than 20 seconds to play to force overtime. The Rams left town with a win, but such a game instilled hope for round two.

    “We’re really close, but we can’t let it get to us,” Solheim said. “If we think this is the game for the state tournament, then it’ll mess with how we’re going. We’ve been going into every game just like a regular old game and playing our hardest. It’s been working out for us so far.”

Someone Who Has Been There, Done That

   Crookston's successes caught the eye of someone who knows a thing or two about qualifying for the state basketball tournament. Kamille Meyer [Wahlin], a member of two Crookston teams that placed at the state tournament, works at the University of Minnesota Crookston as the Assistant Athletic Director/Senior Woman Administrator and took in the semifinals game against East Grand Forks.

    "It was so much fun to watch the team compete on Tuesday," Meyer said. "I loved how hard they worked defensively to get turnovers and stifle the other team's offense. They were also very composed and worked so well together to break pressure as well as find the open person. All players stepped up in their role and did the best they could for their teammates. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the players celebrate and be happy for each other."

    Meyer played on the Crookston teams that placed third in the state in 2008 and second in 2006 and offered a bit of advice when it comes to breaking sections and making it to the state tournament.

    "The advice I'd give the players for tonight's game is simply to embrace the opportunity and have fun being able to experience playing in a Championship Game," Meyer said. "That is something that not everyone gets to experience and is very special when you do. I'd also say, once you step inside the four lines, nothing else matters, and for 36 minutes, you get to play a game where anything is possible. When the ball is tipped, it never matters your age or size or who is the predicted winner. Just compete to the best of your ability with your teammates and embrace the fun challenge. There is going to be a great Crookston Pirate crowd cheering on the team to a victory, and I have goosebumps just thinking about the fun environment. Good luck, Pirates, and I can't wait to cheer you on."

Together ‘Four’ Years

    All can agree, for Zimmerman, Heft and Solheim, the longest-tenured Pirates in this group, this will be their biggest game in their four years together. In 2015-2016, Zimmerman’s first season with Crookston and Hefta’s and Solheim’s freshman year, the Pirates finished 4-23. The next year: 7-20. A season later: 13-14. Now: 18-10 with a state berth on the line.

    “He’s definitely made us way better,” Solheim said of her coach. “He kind of knows our strengths and our weaknesses and knows what we need to work on. He brought some type of energy that we didn’t really have before. He knew that we could be a team that, years down the road, was a really big threat, and that’s exactly what he did.”

    Hefta echoed Solheim’s respect for Zimmerman.

    “You know that he expects a lot out of you, and he’ll tell you he expects a lot out of you,” Hefta said. “But if you work hard and do what he tells you to do, practices are so much better. We’re so much better when he’s on our case about getting stuff done. It’s a fun atmosphere in practice, and I don’t know if people realize how much fun we have in practice.”

    In the 2017-2018 season, the Pirates carried five juniors, which usually means a seasoned team for the following year. But when the first practice started in November, Hefta and Solheim were the only seniors on the roster.

    Whether the season ends in the Section Finals or with a State Championship, Zimmerman knows what he had with this senior class.

    “There are numerous ways that [Kylie and Rachel] have grown and changed,” Zimmerman said. “Becoming better leaders; more responsible. The thing that I’m excited for is, I know they’re going to do well whatever they do in the future. They don’t assume because you work hard, you’re going to get everything you want. They understand you have to keep working at it. If you have a setback, it’s just another step along the way.”

    Zimmerman claims his two seniors are the most vocal on the team, which turned a group of individuals into a team.

    “What maybe stands out more than anything is just the way some of the kids have communicated with the confidence and sincerity with which they are speaking,” Zimmerman said. “When they talk about something or say something, they’re confident with what they’re saying. They believe it. We tell the truth to each other, so there’s a high level of credibility amongst the team.”

Defying Odds Together

    Across four classes and 32 sections of high school girls’ basketball, the No. 10 Crookston Pirates are the lowest seed still left in any tournament. They earned a 10 seed, but no one on the roster associates that number with this team. To them, no number can define their status. It all comes down to playing Pirate basketball, which, thanks to this bunch, carries a new meaning.

    “We try to prepare for every game the same way whether it’s the first game of the year, the last game of the postseason or a chance to go to state on the line,” Zimmerman said. “You just prepare the same way and do the same things you always want to do. When you do those things, the game gets a lot simpler. You just go play basketball.”

    Crookston and Roseau square off on Friday, March 8 at 7 p.m. at Lysaker Gymnasium on the University of Minnesota Crookston campus.

Follow live game updates for Pirates and Golden Eagles on Twitter: @CroxTimesSports or Snapchat: crookstontimes1.

For feedback or questions, contact the Times at (218) 281-2730, Nolan Beilstein at (940) 372-8175 or by email at nbeilstein@crookstontimes.com.