Less than 48 hours before his Stillwater girls’ basketball team’s first state tournament game, coach Willie Taylor paused Monday’s practice to introduce a play he invented on the spot.
No dry-erase board. No film review. Just a few verbal instructions before Taylor sat back to watch.
“He’s the only coach to do something like that,” sophomore guard Alexis Pratt said. “But we have a really smart team.”
Taylor, who coached St. Paul Central to state titles in 2007 and 2008, knows his players have grown into ones able to handle such late-season tweaks. Stillwater’s 21-game winning streak indicates its talents. But it’s in practice where the Ponies have made the biggest strides.
The reward: Stillwater reached its first state tournament since 1988. The No. 2-seeded Ponies (26-2) tip-off against Shakopee (20-9) at 2 p.m. Wednesday in a Class 4A quarterfinal at Williams Arena.
Expectations were high to reach this point. But early-season losses to strong Hopkins and Wayzata programs taught Ponies what they needed to improve their physicality, court communication and sharing of the ball.
Those hard-learned lessons made Stillwater a more complete team. Role players have developed to supplement the big three of Pratt, junior forward Liza Karlen and senior guard Sara Scalia, Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen’s first committed recruit.
“We’ve been winning games, but we wanted to get better at the same time,” Scalia said. “We’ve all got the same mind-set and we’ve been doing that in practice throughout the course of the year.”
Scalia, a shooter with no fear or limits to her range, averages 23.3 points per game. She has made 100 three-pointers this season.
“People underestimate her passing abilities,” Karlen said. “When everyone is focused on stopping her, her passing opens up the floor a lot.”
Reaching the state tournament feels especially sweet for Scalia, who was an eighth-grader when Taylor took over the program in 2014-15.
The Ponies made a slow climb during Scalia’s tenure, from seven victories to nine, then 11 to 17. The number now is 26 (so far).
Help arrived the past two seasons. First came Pratt, who as an eighth-grader helped North St. Paul’s track and field team set a state record in the 4x200-meter relay. As a ninth-grader last season, she gave the Ponies more gallop. This season she is a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 16.2 points and 2.2 steals per game.
“She’s a pain in the butt on defense, which is so nice to have,” Karlen said. “She can pressure anyone in the state. Offensively, she adds a whole other level of speed to our game. If teams try to press us, we can just throw the ball to her.”
Karlen, a transfer from St. Paul Central, joined the fold this season. The 6-3 forward has acclimated to the tougher competition, averaging 12.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Chipping in all season were junior forwards Grace Cote, Mary Fultz and Delaney Wagner. Freshman guard Amber Scalia, Sara’s sister, is the first player of the bench.
“We knew if we kept improving, we knew we had great players and we felt like we could make it to state,” Pratt said.