Hayfield girls draw big respect with No. 2 state seed
Hayfield begins play in the Class A state girls basketball tournament on Thursday when it plays Badger/Greenbush/Middle River.
HAYFIELD — This is an optimal way for Hayfield to head into its second straight state girls basketball tournament, the Vikings barely removed from their best performance of the year.
That happened Friday, a 51-32 undoing of No. 7-ranked Grand Meadow in a Section 1A championship game where pretty much everything went well for Hayfield.
“The girls executed really well and that was probably our best full game of the year,” Hayfield coach Kasey Krekling said. “We’d had a great week of practice, putting in some new wrinkles.”
The wrinkle the Vikings are pursuing now is to finish even better this time at state than they did a year ago, when they went 1-2 for fourth place.
The expectation is to do just that. Despite entering the 2022 state tournament unbeaten, Hayfield drew just a No. 5 seed. This time the Vikings are 28-3 but have jumped all the way to a No. 2 slot.
Based on rankings, that makes sense. The only team ranked higher than No. 4 Hayfield in the tournament field is prohibitive favorite Mountain Iron-Buhl. The 27-3 Rangers, who trampled Hayfield 79-33 on Dec. 3, are No. 1 and bracketed opposite the Vikings.
Hayfield likes its standing in this tournament and thanks to having given itself a difficult schedule, believes it’s earned it.
If it can continue to play as it did against Grand Meadow, with so much balance, it believes it can compete with anyone. That might even include those overwhelming Rangers.
But first things first. At 3 p.m. Thursday, Hayfield will take on unseeded Badger/Greenbush-Middle River in the state quarterfinals at the University of Minnesota’s Maturi Pavilion. The Gators enter 26-3 and are coming off a 53-50 win over Fosston in their Section 8 title game.
Krekling believes his team will be ready for whatever presents itself this tournament. One thing is certain — his team is battle tested.
This season has not simply been a series of blowouts for the Vikings. Six of their wins have been by five points or fewer.
That has been both a product of a tougher schedule and that Hayfield isn’t the defensive pressing crew it was last year, a style that often overwhelmed teams. It doesn’t quite have the personnel and depth to pull that off this season.
But it does have some terrific players and athletes, led by junior All-State players Kristen Watson and Natalie Beaver. Point guard Watson averages 19.4 points, 3.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 4.9 rebounds per game and 5-11 forward Beaver 17.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 1.8 assists and 1.4 blocks per game. It’s also still brimming with quickness, with Watson and guards JoJo Tempel and Chelsea Christopherson leading the way there.
“This team has a competitive nature and they’re not backing down,” Krekling said. “It’s also a team that is hard to guard, with all of our starters able to get to the rim.”
It’s also a committed bunch. Krekling has been opening up the Hayfield gymnasium at 6:45 most mornings this winter for extra, volunteer shooting by his team. The turnout has been exceptional, with more than half of the varsity showing up each time.
“The participation has been amazing,” Krekling said. “None of it is mandatory. I just let them work on whatever they want to work on.”
It’s helped lead to another overwhelmingly winning season for the Vikings.
And now, here they are, at state for the second straight year. Krekling wants his team to win while it’s there. But his wishes go beyond that.
He wants them to enjoy the moment, on the court and off of it.
“We want the experience to be great for them,” Krekling said. “We’re going to enjoy it no matter what.”