The beatdowns are now three seasons past, the frequent wind sprints have become rare occurences. In their place are victories, 12 consecutive this season and 28 in their last 30 games dating back to last year. But for the five senior members of the Orono girls’ basketball team, the memories are still fresh.
Guards Kiera Nelson, Sydney Reiners, Caitlin Boyle and Lydia Farmer, along with forward Rachel Heussner, are four-year varsity vets, having been emergency call-ups as freshmen when a ridiculous slew of injuries hit the 2011-12 team.
Not surprisingly, that team finished 3-24. As newcomers often in over their heads, the call-ups’ mistakes were persistent and repercussions were felt in practice. The coach-uttered phrase “On the line,’’ recognized by most basketball players as the beginning of conditioning sprints, induces cringes to this day.
“We’d do 10-in-1s, where we run up and down the court 10 times in one minute,” said Nelson, an athletic point guard who has committed to Minnesota Duluth. “And we’d do so many killers every single day.”
Coach Ellen Wiese admits that she was hard on her young charges that season, but her reasoning was sound.
“These were players that shouldn’t have been playing at that level, but we didn’t have any choice,” Wiese said. “We might get beat, but we weren’t going to get beat because of lack of effort.”
That season of defeat is paying dividends this year. Nelson, Reiners and Heussner are playing significant roles. The team added talented players in juniors Danielle Jorgenson, Meghan Mandel and Hannah Striggow and sharpshooting sophomore Tori Andrews. Orono has gone from a team that as recently as 2012 had too few players to one of the deepest in the state.
The Spartans’ 12-0 record (through Monday) is the best start in team history. They are currently ranked No. 2 in Class 3A, behind defending champion Park Center. Their average margin of victory is nearly 23 points per game. They have four players averaging between 8 and 15 points per game, led by Andrews at 14.6.
A veteran coach who is a stickler for details, Wiese said she’s not surprised by the start, considering how long the core of her team has been together.
“You could see right away that the talent was there,” Wiese said. “We just had to take that talent and get them thoroughly schooled in the fundamentals.”
Acknowledging that she has asked a lot of her seniors over the last four seasons, Wiese is driven to ensure that she puts in as much effort preparing her team as she demands of them on the court. She scouts every opponent, preparing detailed multiple-page breakdowns for her players before every game. By now, the players know better than to ignore them.
“She used to quiz us on them,” Reiners said. “Finally, we all realized that learning them was something we are supposed to do.”
The Spartans understand that this is their season to shine and they’ve lived up to expectations.
“Now, it’s our time,” said Heussner, who is in her final year as a basketball player, having signed to play volleyball with Harding University in Arkansas. “We’ve grown up playing together and we’ve learned so much since that crazy year.”
Wiese eschews typical coach-speak when it comes to expectations for her team, admitting that it has serious state championship aspirations.
“Everyone has completely bought into their roles on this team and we have very little drama,” she said. “Our goal is not just to get to state, but to win state. We’ve been very clear on what we want.”
Even if it means sharing playing time. Reiners said she plays less now, as a senior, than she did as a freshman, but has no problem coming off the bench.
“As long as we’re playing well and winning, I’m fine,” she said.
Winning has dulled the agony of years past, but the memories still reside close enough to the surface to keep players focused on their goal.
“Rachel and I were just talking the other day about how many killers we used to do,” Nelson said. “That season was an eye-opener. We’ve learned so much since then, things like how every possession counts. I think we’ve only done two killers all year.”