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Prep girls basketball: Grand Rapids still the team to beat in Section 7AAA

The Thunderhawks didn’t lose a single player off the squad that went to the state tournament last year and this time, they’re hoping to do “some damage” in Minneapolis this season, according to senior guard Taryn Hamling.

Grand Rapids girls basketball defeats Superior at home in overtime
Grand Rapids guard Taryn Hamling (21) blocks a shot from Superior guard Savannah Leopold (20) on Friday, Feb. 11 at the Grand Rapids High School Gymnasium. Hamling was the 2022 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year and leads a Thunderhawks squad looking to make some noise in the state tournament in March.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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GRAND RAPIDS — It isn’t often that a team fresh off a run to the state tournament doesn’t lose a single player, but that’s exactly the situation Grand Rapids finds itself in this season.

The Thunderhawks tore through Section 7AAA last season with now-senior Taryn Hamling leading the way. Hamling — a North Dakota State recruit and the 2022 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year — averaged 21.6 points per game last season and shot better than 43% from the 3-point range.

Grand Rapids fell to St. Paul Como Park in the state quarterfinal last season , but with Hamling, Braya LaPlant — an All-State selection with the Thunderhawks’ volleyball team that advanced to the state semifinals earlier this month — and Jessika Lofstrom all returning, the team is poised for a third straight section title.

Grand Rapids girls basketball defeats Superior at home in overtime
Grand Rapids center Jessika Lofstrom (20) hits the floor while chasing a loose ball against Superior on Friday, Feb. 11 at the Grand Rapids High School Gymnasium.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Still, coach Kris Hamling isn’t letting her team take anything for granted as they head into the 2022-23 season.

“I have always been a coach that you’re going to have to work hard and you have to maintain what we’ve done so far,” coach Hamling said. “There are so many teams we don’t know — you might get a move in or girls have worked hard over the summer and their skills have developed.”

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Even with all the unknowns, it’s undeniable the Thunderhawks are the favorites to repeat as section champions and their goal isn’t just a spot at the state tournament. The team has been together so long, they’ve built great “chemistry,” according to Hamling, and there are advantages that come with it.

MORE ABOUT GRAND RAPIDS 2021-22 SEASON
The Thunderhawks junior led her team to the Class AAA state tournament for the second year in a row and is looking forward to “doing some damage” in a third trip to Minneapolis.

“We’re really looking forward to picking up where we left off, which is what we’ve been doing,” Taryn Hamling said. “We don’t really have to teach anything — we’re just cleaning up our plays and we’re going into the season looking forward to getting down to state and actually doing some damage down there, instead of just having the goal of getting down there.”

While the Thunderhawks are clear favorites to repeat as section champions, Section 7AAA won’t be a cakewalk.

While 1,000-point scorer Maddie Young will be playing at St. Catherine this year, Cloquet returns four players with varsity experience, including Alexa Snesrud — who is likely to join Young in the 1,000-point club — Kiley Issendorf and Ava Carlson. Snesrud and Issendorf were All-State soccer players for the Lumberjacks this fall and Carlson was an All-State volleyball player. In addition, Katelyn Olson and Carly Johnson are both out for the team and add to an already quick, athletic squad.

Cloquet tops Hermantown in Section 7AAA semifinal.
Alexa Snesrud, 12, makes a pass beneath the basket during the Lumberjacks' home win over Hermantown Friday, March 3, 2022.
Jamey Malcomb / File / Duluth News Tribune

“We have some tremendously fast athletes — and that’s on the offensive and defensive end,” Coach Heather Young said. “But with that, it means also making sure we’re being smart with the basketball. What I’m noticing is that we need to gel together a little more early on this season. We have that quickness, but we’re not all necessarily on the same page.”

In addition to Cloquet, Young said Hermantown and North Branch could also cause some problems for Grand Rapids and even the Duluth Denfeld program is growing.

“We have a pretty good section and I think there will be some surprises along the way,” Young said. “I always feel like Hermantown comes out of the woodwork with some motion offense you wouldn’t expect and Coach (Beth) Clark will get those athletes ready to play … Then North Branch has a couple of sharpshooters down south that we need to make sure we’re keying on.”

While the Thunderhawks are focused on getting through the section, they are also trying to up the competition with their non-conference schedule. Grand Rapids opens up at 2 p.m. Friday against Class AA power St. Croix Lutheran in the Twin Cities Thanksgiving Tip-Off at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights. The next day they will face Holy Angels at 2 p.m., a traditionally strong Class AAA power.

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“We have to take it above and beyond,” coach Hamling said. “We can’t just plateau, we have to keep pushing ourselves, we have to keep pushing each other on the team to make sure we get those skills mastered and get to the point where we are able to compete at that next level and actually get a win down there.”

More from Jamey Malcomb
The Hilltoppers will again be undersized in Section 7A, but coach CJ Osuchukwu hopes to turn that to his squad’s advantage.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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