Maranatha Christian Academy, which is making its third consecutive trip to the state tournament, goes nine deep.
On the back of Maranatha Christian Academy's red warmup jackets is one word, stitched near the shoulder blades: Anointed.
The Brooklyn Center-based school's girls' basketball players will be wearing those jackets for a third consecutive trip to the state tournament this week.
"We just give God all the glory for us getting here," said junior center Onye Osemenam, whose team is the defending Class 1A champion. "He's helped us step by step, kept us working hard and everything."
Maranatha (25-5), the top seed in Class 1A, Section 4, defeated No. 3 seed Prairie Seeds Academy 72-48 in the section final at Hamline University last week. The victory secured the Mustangs' third consecutive trip to state, where last year they defeated Nicollet 59-52 in the state championship game.
The Mustangs will open up state tournament play Thursday against Section 5 champions Isle (25-5) at Williams Arena.
"The goal is to win it all again," Maranatha coach Jim Hammond said. "Obviously, you have to take it one game at a time. We scouted them [Isle] twice against good teams. We saw them early and a few weeks ago against Braham. They're very dedicated and deserve to be there."
Hammond said he believes Maranatha's tough regular-season schedule has positioned the team for a strong playoff run. Maranatha lost to two 4A opponents, Maple Grove and Burnsville, by four and six points, respectively. The Mustangs also hung tough in losing by seven to defending 2A champion Braham in December.
"When you play those big schools, it's like a playoff game," Hammond said. "We've had like nine of those games with that intensity. Even the teams that don't have as much talent as you have, that game with you is almost like their Super Bowl. They're going to give you everything they have. That kind of target really benefits you because that pressure is on you every game."
The Mustangs have seven players who not only handle the ball well but can hit three-point shots. But beyond an arsenal of offensive talent, Hammond believes his team's top strength is defense.
"A big thing is we have nine players that all have had double-digit points in one game or another," senior guard Alexis Long said. "Any of us can go off, and we can all play defense. Most teams have three or four players that can hang with us, and we have nine. Plus you have Division I center, Onye, and that helps a lot."
Osemenam. a junior, is an assertive rebounder who makes her presence felt in the defensive lane, making it tough for opponents to score inside the paint. She averaged a team-high 12 rebounds per game during the regular season. The 6-2 center is also the Mustangs' leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per contest this season.
"She has over a thousand rebounds and points for her career," Hammond said. "To have a player like that, a shot-blocker in the middle, it's a huge part of our success. She's being recruited by I can't even remember all the schools."
Meanwhile, Long has been playing varsity for Maranatha since she was in seventh grade. The 5-3 senior has scored more than 2,000 points and has been an all-state player three times, Hammond said. She was third on the team in scoring (11.5 point per game) and second in rebounding (5.0 rebounds per game) during the regular season.
"She's got it all," Hammond said. "She's our best defender. She leads us in assists, she leads in steals. I can't say enough about her."
Calvin Swanson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.