Spring Grove girls stalk another perfect season
SPRING GROVE — Richell Mehus and her friends plan to be at the Minnesota girls basketball state tournament next month, one way or another.
"We always go up and watch," she said. "It’s a lot of fun (to watch), but it would be more fun to play there."
It’s not hard to imagine that more fun could be in store for the Spring Grove girls basketball team this playoff season, after the Lions have roared through their most successful regular season ever.
Spring Grove is on the verge of its second straight unbeaten season in the Southeast Conference — three more wins would make it back-to-back 18-0 campaigns — and the Lions are ranked No. 4 in Class A with a high-scoring offense that’s averaging 70 points per game.
"I like our chances, but it’s not going to be an easy road to get there (to state)," said Russell Larson, who has poured the foundation of a winning program in his sixth season as Spring Grove’s head coach.
Over the last three seasons, Larson’s Lions have been one of the best small-school teams that nobody outside the Southeast Conference has heard of.
Spring Grove was a section finalist in 2009, losing in the Section 1A title game to Goodhue, 57-51. Last year, the Lions won 24 games but had a 16-game winning streak halted in the subsection finals with a 67-49 loss to Rushford-Peterson.
"We were so close (to state) against Goodhue (in 2009), and that was hard," Mehus recalled. "But last year was a very frustrating loss (against R-P) to end the season.
"We had high expectations, and we came out flat in that game."
Spring Grove is 22-1 and has won 13 straight since its only loss, a 75-64 setback against formidable Goodhue, which is ranked No. 2 and will be the Lions’ primary obstacle again in section play.
Success no surprise
Spring Grove’s success this season is no surprise. Mehus is one of three multi-year starters, and among four who played on the 2009 section finalist team.
The Lions were 8-16 in Larson’s first season as head coach, but they’ve reeled off five straight winning seasons since and suddenly he is on the verge of career win 100, with a record of 99-55.
"All of the girls have been playing AAU ball in the off-season and that helps a lot," Larson said.
"We also have a good weight-training program that the volleyball coaches started, and that has really helped our girls get stronger and better conditioned."
Larson said weight-training helps explain Mehus’s emergence this season as one of the leading scorers in the section. That, and a change of positions.
The 5-foot-8 Mehus moved from point guard to shooting guard and is averaging 19 points per game, more than double her average last season. She also leads the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg) and is second in assists (6.0).
"We moved Taylor Elton to the point in order to open up Richell to be more of a scorer, and it has worked out well," Larson said.
"Richell is able to muscle up shots in the lane now that she wasn’t before. She’s also very smart and one of our more vocal players. When she says something it’s usually pretty meaningful."
Mehus is no stranger to high achievement. She was recently named a 2011 ExCEL Award winner, an honor from the Minnesota State High School League that recognizes high school juniors who are active in school activies, who show leadership qualities, and who are model citizens.
Good thing going
Larson said that the Spring Grove girls used to envy the consistency of the Spring Grove boys basketball program, under coach Wade Grinde.
Now it’s the Spring Grove girls who could keep setting the bar higher.
There are only two seniors on this team, guard Jordan Olerud and center Katelyn Bjerke. In addition to four juniors, there are two freshmen and three sophomores contributing this season, including Randi Mehus, Richell’s sister.
"At the end of last season we hadn’t lost a conference game from junior high all the way through varsity," Larson said. "It has been fun.
"When your better ball players are also your better students and kids, like Richell, it’s easier to build a winning program."