Apple Valley girls’ basketball coach Jeremy Gordon liked the gradual progress his program made the past three years. He knew that could be hastened this season.

All it was going to take is for his returning group to focus more intently on defense. It had the offensive firepower.

“We’ve always had issues on defense,” Eagles senior forward Sara Teske said. “We needed to focus on defense in practice, and step it up.”

They have done just that, allowing only 58.8 points per game through their first 23 games. It has led to an 19-4 record and No. 6 ranking in Class 4A by Minnesota Basketball News.

“Our defense is where we’ve really grown,” Eagles senior guard Erin Baxter said. “We have a lot more court awareness now, and help each other out.”

A year ago, the Eagles held their opposition below that 58.8 points per game only 10 times. They finished with a 15-13 record.

“When you first make the varsity, every player thinks it’s important to score,” Eagles senior guard Lyndsey Robson said. She has been a member of the varsity squad since seventh grade. “But every aspect of the game is important, especially defense.”

The Eagles never have had a problem scoring, averaging 69.4 points per game this season. They have allowed more than that in all four of their losses.

“I think we lost track of our defense and focused on offense in those games,” Robson said.

Robson has noticed a big change in the Eagles following setbacks compared with years past.

“They all were a good wake-up call, and we responded well after all of them,” Robson said. Their first three losses were followed by an eight-point victory and two 17-point wins.

Robson has been an integral part of the offense since becoming a starter as an eighth-grader. She is the school’s career assist and scoring leader (recently surpassing 2,000 points). The Wisconsin-Green Bay commit is averaging 19.7 points per game in her senior season.

“I’m distributing the ball more than I have in past years,” Robson said. “We have a lot more people who can score this year.”

Teske has returned from a left knee injury to average double figures (10.3 points per game) while Baxter is chipping in with 9.4 points a game. Both will play at Southwest Minnesota State.

“It was a long process to get back,” Teske said. “I wanted to be back for my senior year. I’m happy that I was able to accomplish that.”

The Eagles also have received a big boost from Brynne Rolland. The junior forward has elevated her play and is averaging 17.4 points per game.

“We have a lot of depth and a lot of trust,” Gordon said. “Every girl brings something different to the table, whether it is defense, shooting, rebounding, etc. The girls play off each other’s strengths and set each other up for success.”

Junior forward Linnea Bollum rounds out the starting five. The Eagles also get plenty of help from junior Molly Moynihan and sophomores Megan Baer and Mykel Parham off the bench.

“You don’t win in our conference [South Suburban] if you don’t have depth,” Gordon said. “The girls are appreciating each other and embracing the moment. They know the season will end at some point and they want to take advantage of every opportunity they can.”

They don’t want it ending before a trip to the Class 4A state tournament. The Eagles’ last state tournament appearance was in 2004.

“We want to start a winning tradition for the program,” Robson said. The seniors only won six games four years ago. “We definitely want to get to the state tournament. I’ll be heartbroken if we don’t get there.”