Sunday, March 28, 2021

The West Central Area Knights

The WCA Knights celebrate their Section 6A championship at Fergus Falls high school last Thursday.

The West Central Area Knights girls' basketball team can be thought of as a "Cinderella" type team to the state tournament. A closer analysis would beg to differ, however. Getting to state was within reach in 2020, and they fell just short. This year they busted the door down with three consecutive wins over excellent basketball programs.

In WCA's regular season loss to Parkers Prairie by a 69-65 score, the Knights were "minus 8" on rebounds for the game as well as "minus 12 points" in the paint compared to the Panthers. That's a huge deficit in those categories. WCA turned that around in a big way and came away with a 67-51 road playoff win at Parkers Prairie in the Sub-Section 6A-South semifinals.

WCA benefitted from a 47-point performance off of their bench in the win in their rematch with Parkers Prairie. Two eighth graders combined for seven three-pointers in that game.

In the subsection championship at Hancock, the Knights got the game-winning bucket in the 50-49 win from junior super star and No. 15 Lexi Bright, who is WCA's all-time leading girls' basketball scorer. She is soon approaching 1,800 career points. Bright was not the leading scorer in that game, however, as one of their eighth grade sensations, Macy Grosz, led the team with 15 points. Hancock struggled with cold 34 percent field goal shooting, while WCA exploded with 10-of-16 three-point shooting and 54.5 percent overall field goal shooting.

Bright broke WCA's career scoring record in their playoff opener against Brandon-Evansville. She is a two-time Pheasant Conference MVP and likely on her way to earning a third. Bright, a shooting guard, had three double-doubles in four playoff games. She is a phenomenal player and just a junior!!

WCA put an exclamation mark on their playoff run with a convincing 64-53 win over No. 2-ranked Henning in the section finals. Lexi Bright led all scorers with 21 points. She out-dueled Henning's super star Elle Dague, who had 15 points. Dague, a senior, is a 2,000-point scorer who has signed with North Dakota State University. Hurting Henning's cause was poor 34-percent field goal shooting (17-of-50).

  • Here's the stat sheet for WCA in that state-qualifying win over Henning: Lexi Bright (21 points 10 reb 6 ast), Claire Stark (19 points 12 reb 2 blk), Macy Grosz (9 points), Elizabeth Rustan (4 points 6 reb 3 ast 5 stl).

WCA's win last Thursday avenged a 56-50 loss to Henning in the Section 6A finals last year when both schools were searching for their first girls' basketball state tournament. In the 2020 section finals, Henning's Dague poured in 32 points, including four three-pointers. She put the game away with eight straight free throws at the U of M-Morris P.E. Center. Lexi Bright led the seven Knights who scored in that game with 17 points. One of the seniors on that team, guard Kaylyn Ulrich, had 14 first-half points but none in the second.

Henning thrashed WCA in their regular-season meeting on January 2, 2020 by a 72-48 score. WCA started the 2020 section finals game on fire with a swarming defense that propelled them to a 22-10 lead with 6:30 left in the first half. WCA led 16-10 before Elizabeth Rustan and Lexi Bright hit back-to-back threes. WCA led 45-43 when then-senior Hailey Bennett hit a three-pointer, but Henning regained the lead and never trailed over the final three minutes.

Seventh-year head coach Eric Schoenbauer has had just one losing season at WCA since taking over the program for the 2014-2015 season. They went 15-9 that year and then 14-10 in 2015-2016 with a Sub-Section 6A-South runner-up finish. The 2016-2017 season brought an 8-18 final record. They rebounded to go 19-8 in 2017-2018, but they were soured by a 1-1 playoff record that year. The 2018-2019 season found the WCA Knights earning a solo Pheasant Conference championship, but they again went 1-1 in the playoffs and finished 19-7. They averaged over 68 points a game that season.

Last year, with the Section 6A runner-up finish, the Knights went 22-8 overall and won their second straight solo Pheasant Conference title with a 7-1 mark.

WCA's girls' basketball program has had winning regular seasons in 21 out of their 28 years of existence. In 1993-1994, two very successful small school girls' basketball programs merged to form the WCA Knights: the Hoffman-Kensington Patriots and the West Central Wildcats. West Central was a school district consisting of the former Barrett and Elbow Lake-Wendell schools.

In 1993-1994, WCA competed in the Little Eight Conference and won the conference title while finishing 22-2 overall. They lost to Hancock in their district championship game.

In 1994-1995, WCA was a new member of the West Central South Conference, which B-B-E was also part of back then. During that school year, their new high school was built just to the west of the town of Barrett.

In 1997-1998, WCA got hot in the playoffs and won their first-ever subsection championship as a Class 2A program. They lost in the Section 8AA finals to Roseau while finishing 16-10 overall. They made it to the subsection finals again in 1999 in Class 2A but lost in that game while finishing 17-6 overall. 

WCA won its second girls' basketball conference title in 2001-2002 as a member of the Heart O' Lakes Conference. They advanced to the Section 8AA finals before losing one game short of state with a 22-4 final record.

In 2007-2008, WCA won the Sub-Section 6AA-West title before losing to eventual state champion Albany 77-42 in the Section 6AA championship game. Their final record was 21-7 that year. Side note: Albany ended B-B-E season that year in the Sub-Section 6AA-East semifinals.

WCA didn't play in a section championship for another six seasons, and in that time, they dropped to Class 1A just as B-B-E did. In 2013-2014, the Knights won their sub-section championship before losing 55-31 to Ada-Borup in the section finals to finish 18-9. They were a third-place team in the Prairie Conference that year behind champion Osakis (14-0) and eventual state entrant Browerville (11-3).

The Knights advanced to the subsection finals in Coach Schoenbauer's second season before losing 61-42 to a stacked Wheaton/Herman-Norcross team in a 16-11 season (2015-2016).

I have countless contacts at WCA, and my journalism career owes a great deal to the communities of their school district. From 2008 to 2011, I ran the Hoffman Tribune and Herman-Hoffman Tribune newspapers. They were very special years to me. One family I got to know very well was the family of Pat and Jackie Anderson. Pat Anderson, known affectionately at WCA as "PA", was their head girls' basketball coach from 2003 to 2010. He became the activities director in 2010 and resigned his head coaching position. Tragically, Pat was killed on July 30, 2016 in a UTV-car accident on Highway 55 near Kensington.

It was a devastating loss to the entire WCA community. It was a blow not unlike what we experienced when Coach Vos was killed in October 2012. PA's door was always open for students, and he commanded the respect of the entire K-12 student body at WCA. He was one of a kind.

Pat Anderson was a 1989 Hoffman-Kensington high school graduate. He was an overcomer in the truest form. At age 10, he lost his right arm in a farm accident. For the rest of his life, he lived with a prosthetic arm and hand. It never held him back. Not for a second. He graduated from Moorhead State University with a social studies teaching degree and started his teaching/coaching career at Red Rock Central school in Lamberton. That's where he met Jackie. They eventually moved back to the Hoffman area, where Pat farmed with his dad and brother while teaching and coaching in Hancock. 

In the fall of 1999, Pat was hired at WCA and coached football and basketball. Their family grew with three children: three-sport Knight student-athletes Ben, Ross and Brooke. Up to the time of his death, Pat was living his dream and had been able to coach all three of his children in basketball.

The Anderson family was dealt another tragic and severely cruel blow when Pat and Jackie's son Ben was killed at age 22 on February 22, 2020 in a snowmobile accident. Ben Anderson was in his final year at NDSU earning an Agribusiness degree. At NDSU, he served as finance chair of the Alpha Gamma Rho-Epsilon chapter. His "dream job" was already lined up for him at AgCountry Farm Credit Services at their Willmar location.

What the Andersons have gone through is unimaginable. I can't even begin. My heart aches for them.

Brooke is a 5'8" senior guard/forward on this year's WCA Knights team and has jersey No. 23. She's following in the footsteps of her mom, who played basketball for Sanborn-Lamberton, which was one of the better programs in southwest Minnesota at the time. Brooke is one of just three seniors on this year's WCA team and a player who comes off the bench. She scored a career-high 12 points in WCA's win at Brandon-Evansville on March 4.

After she hit a three-pointer late in the first half in that game, B-E called a timeout. During that timeout, as the team went to the bench for the huddle, they all let loose with laughter. Anderson was quoted in the Echo Press as saying, "I haven't shot all season. My teammates have been really pushing me, and I finally pulled through. My teammates backed me 100 percent. That was fun."

Anderson hit another three-pointer in the second half as the Knights pulled away in an 82-43 win. Bright led WCA with a 24-point effort.

When talking about her team's run-and-gun style of basketball, Anderson said, "I think that is where we shine best. We have fast girls. We’re a quick team, and that’s where we’re going to outwork other teams is with our speed and pushing the ball."

WCA regularly runs 10 to 12 players in and out throughout their games.

That's it for the night.