Rangers’ breakout year ends in section semifinals
Even at the end of a 7-20 season last year, it was clear that the Ranger girls’ basketball team was poised to break out come the 2011-12 campaign. And even though this season came to an end last Tuesday, it is obvious the program is still on the rise.
“The girls see it, the parents see it, everyone sees it as much as myself and the other coaches do,” said head coach Jen Wagner. “It was definitely a year of growing and learning.”
For much of last week’s Section 7AAAA semifinal, it appeared Forest Lake’s season would continue. A late rally by the hosts, though, led to a 71-65 victory for Cambridge-Isanti.
The Bluejackets, seeded second, and Rangers, seeded third, were neck-and-neck in the first half. Forest Lake sophomore Bailey Norby scored eight of her team’s first 10 points, including a basket from the post which put her over 1,000 points for her career.
Later in the half, she stole the ball and went the distance for a layup, sparking a quick 6-0 run which tied the game at 28.
The half closed with a flurry. Ranger ninth-grader Hanna Vidlund hit a three-pointer with 25 seconds left. The Bluejackets scored with five seconds left to go up 32-31, but senior Rachel Bostrom swished a buzzer-beater from near halfcourt to give Forest Lake a 34-32 advantage at the break.
Norby dominated the early portion of the second half. She burned the Cambridge-Isanti zone to the tune of 12 points in the first 5:32 out of the break. A 10-4 run gave the visitors an eight-point lead, but the Bluejackets switched out of their zone and roared back with a seven-point run to regain the lead. Junior guard Brynn Liljander started it with a layup, then senior star Whitney Olson connected on back-to-back jumpers, one coming from beyond the three-point line.
Forest Lake counterpunched with eight straight points, the first four of which were scored by sophomore Anna Eckert. Minutes later, a pair of free throws by sophomore Emily Peters put the Rangers up 61-54 with 4:01 to play.
With the season on the line, the Bluejacket backcourt stepped up. First, Liljander hit consecutive step-back three-pointers. After a Ranger free throw, Olson made a three-pointer, was fouled, and hit the free throw. Suddenly, Cambridge-Isanti led 64-63 with 2:39 to go.
The Ranger offense sputtered the rest of the way in front of the frenzied pro-Bluejacket crowd. Junior KP Palo scored to pull Forest Lake within one as the clock wound under a minute, but Olson hit two free throws with 32 seconds left and the Rangers could not get a good shot off in their ensuing possession.
Up three, Olson missed a pair of free throws, but a timely offensive rebound sealed the win.
It was clear each team gave the other its best shot.
“It was the best I’ve seen Cambridge play and definitely the best we’ve played all season,” Wagner said.
Norby led the Rangers with 25 points, while Eckert added 12 and senior Sam Anderson 10. Olson scored a game-high 28, but Wagner was fine with that considering the Wayne State signee had combined for 74 in the prior two games. Liljander added 21.
The game was closer than the teams’ first meeting – a 60-49 Ranger win in December in Forest Lake. Wagner pointed out that Section 7 is one of only two in Class AAAA that does not hold semifinals at a neutral floor.
“I would have loved to play that game at a neutral site,” she said.
Future is Bright
Cambridge-Isanti (20-9) went on to lose 68-51 to top-seeded Duluth East.
Forest Lake (16-12) can take consolation in the promise of the future.
“Obviously you’re upset you lost, but it’s also a good feeling knowing our kids played so well the last half of the season,” Wagner said. “That’s definitely something to be proud of.”
The team won five of its last six games and will lose just three seniors – Bostrom, Anderson and Micah McGuiness. Plus, the JV squad went 22-2. Norby, Peters and Angie Frericks will return with several years of varsity experience, while the likes of Eckert and Palo emerged as big contributors this year.
“We’ll see how they take ownership to get better,” Wagner said. “Each of them has to own it and make sure they understand this could be a really, really special team over the next couple of years.”