The slow climb up the eight-foot ladder to one of two rims hanging in the gymnasium is a moment dreamt by every player that steps on a basketball court. One-by-one, the victors snip each of the 12 loops connecting the netting to the orange cylinder, signifying the time-honored tradition of crowning a champion. Thursday night was the first time West Central Area girls basketball players held the scissors.

The Knights were 382 days removed from a heart-breaking Section 6A championship loss to the Henning Hornets in the 2020 postseason. Almost 13 months later, the Knights completed their revenge tour by knocking off the defending champion by a score of 64-53 to earn their first trip to the state tournament.

“It’s amazing. It just feels so good,” WCA sophomore forward Claire Stark said. “It took all of us. We couldn’t have done it without each other and the hard work our coaches put us through.”

No. 18 ranked WCA (17-5) came into the section tournament as the South’s third seed. Not only did the Knights avenge regular-season losses to No. 16 ranked Parkers Prairie (15-4) and No. 6 ranked Hancock (18-1), they capped off a remarkable run to the state tournament by ousting second-ranked Henning (20-2).

“These girls learned a lot from those losses,” WCA head coach Eric Schoenbauer said. “They always believed in themselves, but they hadn’t ever gotten over that hurdle. Once we beat Hancock, these girls got the sense that they could do this.”

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The Knights jumped out to an 11-7 lead with an early 9-0 run. From there, WCA didn’t ever fall behind. WCA stuck to its defensive guns throughout the night in limiting the production for Henning seniors Elle Dague and Megan Webber. Earlier this season, Dague scored her 2,000th point before Webber hit the 1,000-point milestone. However, the Knights kept both in check.

“Dague is a phenomenal player, and they’re a good team,” Schoenbauer said. “Once we kept attacking them, I felt good about where the game was going to go.”

The West Central Area girls basketball team celebrated its Section 6A championship win over Henning on Mar. 23, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
The West Central Area girls basketball team celebrated its Section 6A championship win over Henning on Mar. 23, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

Part of Schoenbauer’s approach was feeding the ball to Stark in the low post. She used her height and strength advantage to score 17 points off the bench in the first half. She converted a three-point play and a put-back layup to put the Knights up 27-17 with 6:30 left in the half.

“Our coaches wanted me to go up hard and go through contact,” Stark said. “That’s what we’ve been working on all year.”

Henning sparked several comebacks. Webber and Dague each hit a three during a 9-0 Hornets’ run to cut the lead to 29-26. Schoenbauer stayed true to the game plan in finding his mismatch in the paint.

“We anticipated that when Claire came into the game, we would have an advantage in the post,” Schoenbauer said. “We knew they switched off ball screens, so we would try to get her on a smaller person and have her attack the rim. Most teams are going to key in on Lexi Bright. If we find an advantage when they get help on Lex, we will find mismatches.”

Bright, WCA’s all-time leading scorer, had a quiet first half. With under five minutes before the break, she picked up her second foul. Aside from the final 20 seconds, she spent the remainder of the half on the bench. Her teammates got the Knights into the half up 36-29.

Henning came out of the locker room with urgency and tied the game 41-41 with a Dague floater from the key. But the Knights continued to find contributions from everywhere on the court. Eighth-grader Macy Grosz banked in one of her two three-pointers to cap off a 10-1 run.

Bright showed why she’s one of the best to put on a WCA jersey. She finished with a game-high 21 points after a big second half. Bright made five threes -- most of them halting any Henning momentum.

WCA's Claire Stark cuts her piece of the Section 6A championship net after the Knights beat the Henning Hornets in Fergus Falls on Mar. 23, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
WCA's Claire Stark cuts her piece of the Section 6A championship net after the Knights beat the Henning Hornets in Fergus Falls on Mar. 23, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

“We understand that she is a very, very phenomenal player,” Schoenbauer said with a laugh. “I can’t argue against that.”

What made the Knights’ championship effort even more special was each player could point to a moment they had in the game that stood out. The final dagger came with under three minutes left when eighth-grader Mya Foslien drew an offensive foul up 62-49.

“We keep preaching that it’s not necessarily one person that’s going to do it all,” Schoenbauer said. “When you’re in, do what you’re good at to the best of your ability. The girls bought in, and they’re doing it.”

WCA’s playoff run started with Bright breaking the school’s all-time scoring record in a first-round win over sixth-seeded Brandon-Evansville at home.

“That Brandon-Evansville group is a good team,” Schoenbauer said. “They’re the best six seed I’ve ever seen. Especially when they got (Mikenna) Pattrin back, who was out for a stretch.”

Typically, the remaining four teams in each subsection will play on a neutral court. Due to the COVID-19 protocols, the high-seed hosted each round leading up to the 6A title game. The Knights took down second-seeded Parkers Prairie before knocking off the top-seeded Hancock Owls. Both of those wins came on the road.

Schoenbauer was emotional after his team became the first to hoist the 6A crown. For stretches of the regular season, the Knights struggled to put it all together. But after a 57-49 road win at Underwood, things started to click. Now, the Knights can call themselves champions.

“It just feels incredible,” Schoenbauer said. “As a coach, you just keep preaching that all that hard work is going to pay off at some point. You have to perform when there are no fans in the stands so you can play when thousands are there. For a while there, we just weren’t gelling as a team. To come together at the end is incredible. Everything changed after that Underwood game. To get to this point and be a first-time state participant from WCA is just phenomenal.”

WCA 36 28- 64

HENNING 29 24 - 53

WCA SCORING- Brooke Anderson 2, Claire Stark 19, Lexi Bright 21, Elizabeth Rustan 4, Mya Foslien 5, Brynn Fernholz 2, Macy Grosz 9, Sydney Ulrich 2

HENNING SCORING- Faith Fischer 9, Elle Dague 15, Megan Webber 7, Grace Hammer 1, Megan Rinicker 2, Kylie Frederick 11, Ally Hart 1