By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
Eight wins three years ago. Seventeen wins the next. Even though the Mankato East girls basketball team continued its progress by posting a 26-3 record last season, the Cougars lost in the section championship game, which muted some of the satisfaction.
“We were all disappointed the way the season ended last year,” senior Abby Connell said. “We don't want to go through that again. This year, we want to end the season at the state tournament.”
The Cougars begin the season Tuesday at home against New Ulm, and with many key players returning, there's optimism that East could return to the state tournament for the first time since 1998.
The kids have been talking about how good of a season we can have,” coach Mike Barger said. “We have a lot of talent, but you still have to work hard. Every team we play is going to work hard.”
The Cougars are led by senior point guard Minnie Frederick, who has signed to play next season at the University of Detroit Mercy. She’s already had two of the top seven single-season assist totals in state history, adding up to 521. She needs only six more to break the career school record.
“She’s a kid that keeps everyone loose,” Barger said. “But once the game starts, she’s really competitive.”
Frederick also averaged 11.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.0 steals.
Junior center Claire Ziegler grabbed a program record 307 rebounds, averaging 10.6 boards and 14.5 points. She shot 53.4 percent from the field, mostly from inside, but she did nail two 3-pointers.
“When she was in ninth grade, we kept her in the paint, but each year, she’s moved her (shooting) range out a little bit,” Barger said. “She’s gotten better each year because she works so hard.”
Connell is the top perimeter threat, making 44 3-pointers last season in averaging 6.5 points, and junior Taylor Karge is an inside-out presence, averaging 7.6 points and 3.9 rebounds.
The fifth spot in the starting unit is still undetermined, with posts Allison Taylor and Shelby Beckman and guards Marta Anderson, Bria Armstrong, Carolyn Osdoba, Mandy Smith and Hannah Whitington all expected to find some playing time.
“We’re a little deeper this year,” Barger said. “I’m hoping that the depth pays off. By the end of the season, we were playing only six girls.”
The Cougars won the Big Nine Conference championship last season, going 18-0. Rochester Century and Rochester Mayo will be strong challengers in the league, and Hutchinson, Marshall and New Prague are always formidable in the section.
“The biggest thing about our team is that we’re all friends," Connell said. “We don’t have that team drama, which can be a problem, especially with girls teams.
“It’s been amazing to be part of the transformation of the program. I’m excited to get the season started, and I’m excited to see how we come out.”