With strong nucleus back, Crookston has plenty to build off of this season
Darin Zimmerman says he and his team don't have any concrete expectations or goals for this season just yet.
Is that surprising from the coach of a team that's coming off a 21-win season and returns plenty of talent from said team, including its two leading scorers? Perhaps. But rest assured Zimmerman is well aware of what his Crookston girls' basketball team might be able to accomplish if everything goes right.
This season, which for the Pirates begins Friday night at home against Breckenridge, will be Zimmerman's sixth as head coach. The Pirates won just four games his first year, and their win total has steadily crept up since: seven in 2016-17, 13 in 2017-18, 18 and a Section 8AA championship game appearance in 2018-19, and to 21 last year.
Zimmerman's just fine letting this progression speak for itself.
"We had an excellent year (last season)," he said Monday. "We executed really well, we played really well at the end of the year. We had adversity the last month, but we were right in a position to beat a good team that ultimately went to the state tournament."
By adversity, Zimmerman's referring to a few things, but perhaps chief among them was the loss of star guard Emma Borowicz to a torn ACL in January. Without Borowicz, Crookston fell in the section quarterfinals to Pelican Rapids, 49-44, in a game that went right down to the wire. The Vikings went on to win the section title.
There may be nothing set in stone laying out what the Pirates hope to accomplish in 2021. But with a deep, cohesive roster, they feel strongly they'll have the chance to, in Zimmerman's words, "keep playing basketball (this season) for a long time."
One of their first tasks, though will be replacing three senior starters: Dani Boyle, Gretchen Theis and Kasey Cwikla. Boyle (7.1 ppg) brought tough perimeter defense and 3-point shooting. Theis, despite missing a month due to illness, was the Pirates' third-leading scorer by average (9.9 ppg). Cwikla (7.1 ppg) was their main post presence on both ends of the floor.
"They all kind of brought something a bit different," Zimmerman said. "They're all good players, they played for such a long time and consistently got better. There's definitely a little leadership that we'll have to pick up from where they left off."
Having Borowicz, a senior guard, back will help them do that. Before her injury, Borowicz was averaging 13.7 points per game and playing her best basketball of the season, having scored over 20 points in three of her last four games. Despite missing the final month of the season, she was named Honorable Mention All-State.
This winter, all indications are that Borowicz, a varsity member since eighth grade, is fully healthy — "fast" and "fluid" being Zimmerman's exact words.
"It's just a different type of energy with her back," Zimmerman said. "... The thing about Emma, she's really smart. So she knows the game really well and knows when to use her athleticism to her advantage. She's looked really good these last couple weeks."
With Borowicz out, Hayden Winjum was one of many who picked up the slack. Winjum established herself as an all-around force as a sophomore last year, terrorizing Section 8AA opponents with her defensive activity, length and athleticism. She averaged 10.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.1 steals per game last season, and still has room to improve: this season, she's hoping to develop her jump shot and overall offensive game.
As an eighth-grader, Halle Winjum stepped into the starting lineup in the wake of Borowicz and Theis' absence and acquitted herself well. Winjum began the season as the Pirates' top bench threat, and ended it averaging 7.9 points per game. Despite normally being one of the smallest players on the court, Winjum stood out on many occasions due to her toughness and shooting.
Borowicz and the Winjum sisters make up the nucleus of Crookston's roster, but Zimmerman sees no shortage of players around them who can contribute. Some, like senior Emma Boll, junior Jenna Coauette, sophomore Abby Borowicz and junior Madison Hoiland, had key roles last season that will only increase. Others, like juniors Ally Perreault and Emma Osborn, could see their first major varsity action.
"All of them will probably be expected at a different time to do something," Zimmerman said. "They certainly have been doing it in practice. ... They fit the mold of what you ask."
Last season, the Pirates were especially strong on the defensive end. They allowed just 42.1 points per game — the second-fewest in Section 8AA behind Pelican Rapids — behind an energetic, high-pressure defense that was effective in both the half-court and full-court and regularly forced opponents into 20 turnovers or more.
"I think we're gonna be a very high-speed team," Hayden Winjum said. "We're gonna move with a lot of speed, fast breaks, and our defense is going to be strong."
Offensively, Crookston's balance stood out to Zimmerman. While Borowicz and Winjum always had the potential for big scoring games, the Pirates' unselfish nature was their biggest asset: they had seven different single-game leading scorers last season. In addition, their ability to force steals led to plenty of easy baskets in transition.
"Getting out and playing on the break without having to set anything up, that should be a strength for us," Zimmerman said. "The girls will find open spots, they'll fight for space and they'll make the unselfish play."
Thus far, Zimmerman doesn't think the core strengths of his team have changed much. Crookston will need to rebound better this season — to Zimmerman, that was perhaps his team's biggest weakness. But the Pirates put their team chemistry on display on both ends of the court, and this year, if they are to contend in Section 8AA, they'll most likely rely on that chemistry.
"The girls play really well together," Zimmerman said. "From an offensive standpoint, players can do multiple things. They're not just shooters or they're not just drivers, they can shoot and they can drive and they can find open teammates, so there's a lot of different things we can run offensively as a result of that."
Added Boll: "We have very good basketball knowledge and we all know how to play off of each other, so we can read what we're doing as we're playing."
Winjum and Boll immediately pointed to Pelican Rapids, the defending champions, and Fergus Falls as the biggest threats in the section. Zimmerman mentioned Perham, Hawley, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls as well. While Roseau suffered a blow earlier this month when star guard Katie Borowicz decided to graduate early to play at Minnesota, Zimmerman thinks they'll find a way to regroup as well.
It's a tough section to compete in, and there's no guarantee that Crookston won't face adversity similar to what it faced last season. Boyle, Cwikla and Theis aren't players that can be replaced at the drop of a hat, either.
But with the culture that Zimmerman has built — as evidenced by a steady improvement in wins each season — the Pirates expect to be right in the mix when everything shakes out. It's hard to blame them.
"A lot of these girls have been playing a long time together," Zimmerman said in December. "They've played for me for quite a few years and they've gotten better and better every single year. ... Just that sense of maturity that this group has and the approach that they take, and combine that with a high level of skill, it's gonna be a fun year."
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