GLYNDON — Players like Kasey Cwikla are easy to mythologize.
The senior forward isn't Crookston's top scorer. She isn't its top defender, at least by the raw numbers. She certainly isn't its flashiest player.
But there's much to Cwikla's game that goes unseen. For most of the season, she's been the only post player in the Pirates' starting lineup; the ballast that allowed Emma Borowicz, Hayden Winjum, Gretchen Theis and Dani Boyle to do their thing on the perimeter.
Cwikla's scored when she's needed to. She's rebounded when she's needed to. All the while, she's done it with leadership, intelligence and tenacity. She's been the archetypal "glue" player — she averages just 6.5 points per game, but is as indispensable as any Pirate.
"She's a do-it-all type player for us," said Crookston coach Darin Zimmerman after Cwikla had just two points and two rebounds, but took three charges in a win over Barnesville on Dec. 17.
And lately, the Pirates have needed their do-it-all player to do even more.
With just a few weeks left in the regular season, Zimmerman is looking for his players to dig down even deeper during the stretch run. The recent absences of Theis (illness) and Borowicz (knee injury) have only accelerated the inevitable.
"Especially as a senior, I think she understands now we're in February and we just gotta work to expand her roles a little bit, and do some things we weren't doing before," Zimmerman said Monday.
If there's one area where Cwikla's role could have stood to expand, it was from outside.
She's never been a bad shooter, nor a reluctant one. Crookston's coaches have always encouraged her to let it fly when she gets the chance. Her presence down low, however has been so important to the Pirates' offensive balance that she hasn't had many of them this year.
But Theis and Borowicz's absences have meant a perimeter void needing to be filled — and Cwikla's jumped right in.
Against Roseau on Jan. 28, Cwikla's 3-pointer with seven minutes to play started the Pirates' rally from 10 points down to take the lead in the final seconds. In Monday's 67-60 win over Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, she took several shots from outside, hitting a crucial trey in the second half and another jumper from the elbow.
"She's been working on it a lot," Zimmerman said. "She's obviously really good inside for us, but if she can stretch the floor for us like that, they gotta pull kids out to guard her, which opens the dribble-drive for us a little more. Kasey can make that shot, so she has the green light to shoot it."
These developments are still only a few games old, and opponents are in the process of reacting. For an atypical shooter like Cwikla, this is the sweet spot — her ever-growing confidence combined with a defense's willingness to still leave her open.
Even in a five-point game in which the Rebels had all the momentum, they elected to let her pop open in the right corner with seven minutes to go. Cwikla didn't hesitate, ripping the cord and scoring three of the most important of her 12 points.
"In the past couple games I've felt like I've just been open there," she said. "And I just think, why not?"
Expect this to continue even when Borowicz and Theis return to the lineup. Zimmerman likes his teams to play fast and shoot plenty, and doesn't want to get in the way of a player's confidence. He isn't the type to tie a player to the bench for taking a shot he doesn't like them taking.
But Cwikla's basketball intelligence is so high, though, that Zimmerman isn't worried about her going off the rails. Rather, he's encouraged by a senior leader doing whatever she can when her team needs her most; the unseen contributions of the archetypal glue player becoming visible at exactly the right time.
"Kasey doesn't force things, but when she gets a good, clean look from outside, she'll look to shoot it," Zimmerman said. "When she gets her legs into it and gets some arc on the shot, it's usually pretty effective."
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