Eastview coach Molly Kasper and her assistants recognized last spring what most outside observers of the program failed to see.
The Lightning lost two longtime starters, forward Rachel Ranke and point guard Allie Pickrain, from the team the finished third in Class 4A in 2017. No one expected Eastview to slump terribly this season — with six consecutive state tournament appearances before this year, the program has established itself as one of the elite in Class 4A.
But few saw Eastview putting together the sort of dominant season it’s had. Embracing Kasper’s team-first, all-for-one philosophy, the Lightning has not lost a game this season. It goes into the girls’ state basketball tournament as the No. 1 seed and only undefeated team (29-0) in Class 4A.
“Honestly, this journey started last spring,” Kasper said. “They bought in way back then. I don’t know if a coach can ever say we thought we would be undefeated, but I knew we would be special”
While fans focused on what Eastvew was losing, the coaching staff was thrilled by what they had coming back. They saw in 6-2 forward Megan Walstad, a first team Star Tribune All-Metro selection, the type of selfless player who was perfect to set the tone they wanted.
Walstad, who will play at Wisconsin-Milwaukee next year, is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game, numbers that could be significantly higher in other programs.
Her lack of ego has trickled down through the team. In the Section 3 semifinals, Walstad scored just two points but made her mark with nine rebounds and tough defense in a 61-39 victory over Hastings.
“Megan only took four shots,” Kasper marveled. “It’s great when your best player can buy in like that.”
It wasn’t just Walstad. It became evident that senior forward Andrea Abrams and junior guards Emma Carpenter and Macy Guebert were ready to take their games to the next level. And there was the return of Mariah Alipate, an athletic do-it-all forward who missed the entire 2016-17 season after tearing an ACL in one of her knees.
Alipate was a starter for the Lightning as a sophomore.
“A lot of people didn’t see that, with Mariah back, we technically had four returning starters,” Kasper said.
Still, the key for Eastview has been its ability to embrace each other and do what needs to be done.
The Lightning plays suffocating defense, share the ball openly and rarely think about themselves. Opponents average just a shade over 40 points per game (40.4), the best defensive average of any 4A team in the tournament.
They’ve held opponents to fewer than 30 points in a game, seven times an unheard-of number in today’s era of offense.
“We have the mind-set that being selfless is good for us,” Walstad said. “We have a lot of trust in each other. Camaraderie is what sets us apart.”
Kasper relayed a story from a recent practice.
“One player said, ‘You know, we only have two practices left’. Another one said, ‘Don’t say that. I don’t want to start crying’,” Kasper recalled. “You can get a lot accomplished when you come to practice with that attitude. As coaches, we just sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Walstad said she never doubted that this team would be successful.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “We love being with each other so much and taking the court together every day, I knew we’d come out and play our best.”