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Wunderlich, Pioneers compete for National Championship

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Northland's Janie Wunderlich brings the ball up the court for the Pioneers in a game against Lake Region. Wunderlich, a Perham grad, recently played in the NJCAA Division III National Championship game. (Photo courtesy of Scott DCamp/Thief River Falls Times)

While the sports world began it’s lockdown, one Perham alumnus was playing for a National Championship. Janie Wunderlich and the Northland Community College Pioneers were playing for the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III Championship in Rockford, Ill.

Wunderlich, wrapped up a third season after an injury erased her first, helped lead the Pioneers to the title game where they were ultimately defeated by Western Tech 69-60. It was one of the few National Championships held across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country and forced shutdowns across the nation.

Wunderlich said the experience was completely awesome, despite the loss in the championship game. The tournament was rushed and packed into two days instead of over three like past years. The semifinals and championship games were played on the same day.

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Janie Wunderlich dribbles with the basketball as she is defended by a Rainy River player during the 2019-20 MCAC basketball season. Wunderlich and Pioneers finished out the season in at the 2020 NJCAA Division III National Championships. (Photo courtesy of Scott DCamp/Thief River Falls Times)

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“It was completely awesome. We went into the game completely tired because we already had to play two games in one day, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to play the championship game. It didn’t feel like a National Championship because there were no fans. We weren’t allowed to have spectators at the game. It was just the two teams, two people from the NJCAA, the refs and that was it,” Wunderlich said. “It didn’t quite have the feel of a National Championship but the idea that you knew you were competing to be the top team in Division III JUCO schools was very humbling and awesome because we worked all season to get there and it finally paid off.”

Wunderlich finished her final game with nine points and nine rebounds in the National Championship. Wunderlich said the Pioneers were grateful to compete in the National Championship game but she thinks the outcome may have been different if the teams played on the typical schedule of the tournament. The Pioneers dismantled Western Tech 65-52 during the regular season.

“Obviously we are grateful to compete for that national title, but we think the outcome would have been very different if we would have had a nice rest in between,” Wunderlich said. “We only had seven girls playing and the other team had double digits. It was very challenging at the same time, but weird would be a great way to describe the whole experience.”

The Pioneers opened the tournament with a 70-61 victory over North Country Community College. Wunderlich led the way for the Pioneers with 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

Wunderlich followed the next day with 12 points and nine rebounds in a 50-49 victory over Cedar Valley College.

Wunderlich said the Pioneers came in confident for the championship and played an exceptional first half. The Pioneers led Western Tech 36-27 after the first half, but the third quarter was all Western Tech. Wunderlich finished with nine points and nine rebounds in the National Championship.

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Janie Wunderlich drives by a Lake Region defender on her way to the hoop for the Pioneers. The Perham grad helped the Pioneers to the 2020 NJCAA Division III National Championship game. (Photo courtesy of Scott DCamp/Thief River Falls Times)

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“In that first half, we had it. We had intense energy and were locked in during that first half. At halftime, we had a few minutes to rest our legs and we didn’t get it back that second half,” Wunderlich said. “Western Tech found some energy and we don’t know where they got it from, because they did not have it in the first half. They just came out on top that second half. That’s just one of those things you just wish you would have conditioned a little more and you wish you would have done a little more. But, when you play back-to-back games like that there is not a lot you can do with your conditioning at that point.”

It was a season of adversity for the Pioneers. The team had several players quit at the beginning of the year and the team was a part of a fatal car accident on their way to a game in Duluth. However, the team came together throughout the season and ended with a chance to play for the National Championship.

“Going into the National Championship game, you realize that you made it, you made it to the top of the top, no matter what the outcome is. You need to be able to look back and say I made it to the top game in the whole country, literally the whole country, because no one else got to compete for a championship. We made it and when we lost, it really stunk and you have that bitter feeling inside, knowing that you could have done some things different to fix it, but that’s the game of basketball,” Wunderlich said. “You come on top a lot of times, but a lot of times you fail, but it’s what you decide to do with those failures that’s going to make your team great. We knew at the end of the game we were on top and no matter what we were a team and proud of ourselves. It’s kind of bittersweet because you knew you could have been top of the division. We were nine points away from being on top of the division. We could have shot this shot, could have given the assist here, taken a charge here or just it comes out to all the would have, could have and should haves. We are proud and know we made it to the top of the division and very grateful for that.”

Wunderlich said her time at Northland was a phenomenal experience. She said she picked Northland because she thought she could improve a decent amount before transferring to a four year college.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience and I have relationships and friendships that are going to take me on for the rest of my life,” Wunderlich said. “Northland will always have a special place in my heart. It’s just so community based and so many people actually, generally care about who you are and where you are going to go in life.”

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