What was once a rebuilding project four years ago is now a high-powered locomotive at Park High School of Cottage Grove.
The Wolfpack finished 3-24 without a senior on the basketball court in 2010, a trying time for the girls' program, but one that saw potential. In 2011, Park escaped the Suburban East Conference cellar, registering a 15-win season punctuated with a section playoff upset over Eagan in the first round.
Last year saw even greater gains. Park didn't lose a home game until the last regular-season contest on Feb. 24 against White Bear Lake. Head coach Stephanie Tolkinen's team challenged all year for the Suburban East title and made a feisty playoff run.
"That really said a lot for this team. We got caught up in all the momentum and how great of a season we were having," Tolkinen said. "It wasn't out of line for us to think that we could maybe make it to a state tournament last year."
Park narrowly missed the state tournament after suffering a five-point loss to Eastview in the section final. The Wolfpack finished the season 20-9.
It was a wild ride. Tolkinen and the coaching staff couldn't have been prouder.
"It was just so exciting for our kids and for our program," said Tolkinen, now in her eighth year as head coach. "It's just so great to see the commitment from the kids and what they're willing to do to help our program go and just get stronger every year."
Larissa Lurken has lived through the Park transformation, from freshman four years ago to team-leading senior with high expectations.
"It's definitely been a crazy turnaround," Lurken said. "I'm just glad to be a part of it and start to see some success."
Lurken averaged 17.3 points per game as a junior. She's an outside shooting threat who recently committed to play college basketball at Kent State in Ohio.
"She's helped guide us through this whole four years of progressively getting better and better,'' Tolkinen said. "I think the ultimate goal now is: We've been to that section championship. Now, we have to get there again -- and can we win it?"
Co-piloting with Lurken is junior Sydney Lamberty, who averaged 18.7 points per game to lead the team last year. These two guards are now entering their fourth season together, so the chemistry is already primed for a special season. Both play tight defense, and now are working on becoming better leaders.
"We've been through a lot," Lamberty said. "We've experienced a lot of losing, but now that's behind us."
Lurken and Lamberty will need their teammates to help them win games. This year's Wolfpack offers a strong supporting cast ready to fill out the lineup and contribute in all phases of the game.
Senior forward Courtney Waldo brings athleticism to the post, something Park has struggled with in recent years. Temi Ogunrinde will also help down low with strength and size. Sophomore point guard Carlie Williams improved last year as the season went along. Carlie's twin sister, Annie Williams, is a quick defensive-minded guard and solid rebounder who flies all over the court.
No matter how far Park's come in the last four years, it's now about how much further it can get.
"We don't ever want to be satisfied with where we're at," Tolkinen said. "Every year we just want to go to another level. We still feel that there's more that we can do in our program. And now, here we are."