Despite making it to state the past two years, Annandale reaching the Class 2A tournament a third consecutive time was far from guaranteed.
Rather, it was hardly even expected.
That’s because the Cardinals lost most of their top scorers from the state runner-up last season.
But the one they didn’t lose, Chase Knickerbocker, has helped lead the team back to the state tournament, where they will take on second-seeded Caledonia on Wednesday.
“There’s no way when we walked off that floor a year ago graduating six of those seven kids and knowing what [teams] would be in our section … that we thought ‘Yeah, we’re probably going back to state,’ ” coach Skip Dolan said.
But as a senior, Knickerbocker has put the team on his back. The 6-6 forward has averaged a team-leading 27.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
“We knew we had a kid that could potentially put up a 20-point-a-night-type game in Chase, but every other piece we put together this year was really an unknown piece,” Dolan said.
The Cardinals have built around Knickerbocker, adding guards Alex Hohenstein and Brock Fobbe along with big men Jarod Wilken and AJ Hinz.
After beginning the season 3-5, Dolan brought in Hinz from the freshman team. He made an immediate impact, getting nine points and 11 rebounds in a 72-67 victory over Hutchinson.
The Cardinals have lost just five games since then. Knickerbocker said playing with three big men has helped the team immensely.
“That’s the way that we should’ve been playing all along, and now we’re really used to each other,” Knickerbocker said.
The team defeated St. Cloud Cathedral, the No. 1 team in its subsection and Maple Lake (26-1) before knocking off Breck, a team it lost to in the regular season by 18 points.
“A lot of people doubted us, and Dolan knew that, too. And he would tell us that and definitely drilled us a lot more,” Hohenstein said. “We worked as hard as we could. We were definitely the underdog, especially these last three games.”
Annandale inherits the same role as it makes a run at the Class 2A title.
Dolan, who deflects the notion of picking a “best season,” said, “This is definitely the most rewarding one for me.”
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.