MOORHEAD — Playoffs have a way of boiling everything down to one singular moment, where victory or defeat hits all at once.
Whether you win 20 regular season games or win two, you still get a shot in the playoffs. Win or go home, and if you’re lucky, repeat. Each time, it’s one game to define your entire season’s fortune, but one game in which it could all end just like that.
Perhaps Gretchen Theis was more familiar with this than most, the suddenness at which anything and everything can vanish. The Crookston senior came down with mononucleosis in late January and missed seven games, making it back just in time for the stretch run. She led the Pirates with 16 points in her first game back, and scored another 14 in the regular season finale.
Theis wasn’t here to rue lost time. Stepping onto the court on Saturday, her goal was to make Crookston’s season last as long as possible.
She drove the lane and scored on a spin move in the post. She scored on a carbon copy of that layup a possession later, and then put home a reverse layup for an and-1. Just a few minutes into the Section 8AA quarterfinal against Pelican Rapids, Theis had all seven of the Pirates’ points.
“Ride or die mentality,” she said. “We came out pretty hot, and you could tell we wanted it pretty bad.”
Theis’ aggression and unwillingness to have her career come to an end set the tone. Crookston battled back from deficits of seven, eight and 10 points on separate occasions. But the unbeaten Vikings were too big, too strong, too inevitable.
Theis raced down the court with seven seconds left, firing a Hail Mary from just beyond the 3-point line. It smacked off the backboard and spun rapidly around the rim, and teetered off into the hands of a Viking. It didn’t hit her until after she had made it through the handshake line.
When you’ve given everything you had in a game where everything’s up for grabs, that’s how the ending tends to come: all at once.
It’s not a secret that Crookston wanted to go farther than it did; that it didn’t want its season to end with a 49-44 loss in the quarterfinals. Not after its surprising run to the section title game last season. Darin Zimmerman admitted that much.
That’s not how the Pirates’ coach will define the 2019-20 season. All but one team will fall short of their ultimate goal, but Zimmerman believes his team achieved their primary goal: get better every day.
After Crookston came up one game short of state last month, that charge of achieving that goal became the seniors’ to lead: Theis, Dani Boyle and Kasey Cwikla.
“I’m gonna remember that they were willing to put effort in,” Zimmerman said Saturday. “They were unselfish players, they wanted to be better and better. After we had an outstanding end of our season last year, they knew we gotta get to work if we wanna replicate that.”
The Pirates did and more. They won their first seven games by a combined 232 points, started out 15-2 and looked every bit of one of the best teams in not just the section, but Class AA. They wouldn’t have done it without Boyle’s shooting, Theis’ slashing and Cwikla’s inside play.
And when their season came to a pinch point, against the undefeated, No. 5 team in the state in the playoffs, it was the three seniors that took the reins.
Theis’ surge at the start of the game only carried Crookston so far: it went into halftime trailing 26-19 and fell behind 37-27 after Pelican Rapids’ first 3-pointer of the game.
The Pirates rushed down the floor and worked the ball to an open Boyle on the left wing. She didn’t hesitate a second, flushing a pivotal three to turn the tide back in the Pirates’ favor.
“Great shooter stepping up with confidence,” Zimmerman said. “Being a senior, expected her to come out and shoot the ball well and not be afraid of the moment, and she proved it with that shot.”
After a defensive stop, Boyle snared a high pass on the baseline. She saw Cwikla under the basket and somehow, sandwiched between two defenders and the sideline, managed to thread the needle for an assist.
Theis took a charge on the next possession, and Cwikla capitalized, spinning inside for the finish and to make it a one-possession game.
“She was just physical,” Zimmerman said. “Even though she was undersized compared to the kids they had guarding her, she was assertive when she got the ball inside and she went up strong.”
In their final high school games, Cwikla scored 13, Theis scored 12 and Boyle scored five — over two-thirds of the Pirates’ points.
If the ending had to come Saturday, this was the ending they wanted.
“You never know when your last game’s gonna be,” Zimmerman said. “But you wanna be able to go out and say that I played as hard as I possibly could, I did everything in my power to make the plays I could, and they all did that.
“They made play after play, they left everything out on the floor. When the sting of the loss subsides a little bit, they’re gonna remember how special it was to play really well in their last game, but also to have an unbelievable senior year.”
On Saturday, Zimmerman said he had started thinking about next season “five minutes ago.” Crookston has improved its record in each of the five years he’s been the head coach, and there’s no doubt it will use its ending this season as fuel for next year’s fire. But Boyle, Cwikla and Theis won’t be able to join in.
It’s because of them that the Pirates are as well-positioned as they are for next year and the years to come. In one game, Boyle, Cwikla and Theis encapsulated everything that had gotten them and their team this far. As it stood, they took it as far as it could go on Saturday, but in the words of Theis, “it is what it is.”
Zimmerman expects them to find some way to contribute to future Crookston teams and look over the program from afar. Eventually, they’ll be able to look back and see these contributions for everything they are. But for now, Saturday was just an ending, all at once, leaving them with memory alone.
“I’ll always remember this team,” Boyle said. “They’re like my family.”
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