Panthers remember last season's lessons

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It's like the basketball ghost of Christmas past.

The St. Croix Central girls basketball team ended 2016 as the leader in the Middle Border Conference. But they weren't able to complete their goal of winning the MBC title, being overtaken by Somerset in the January and February portion of the season.

This season's Panthers end 2017 in the same position as a year ago, alone atop the MBC standings with a 4-0 record. And with most of the girls from last season's team back this year, the Panthers clearly remember what happened a season ago. And they don't want to see a repeat.

The Panthers completed the 2017 portion of their season last Tuesday with a 59-35 home non-conference win against Barron. The Panthers end the year with a 7-2 overall record.

The Panthers have hopes of going deep into the WIAA playoffs this season. That's what made the Barron game important. The teams are in the same regional bracket, but have never been on each other's schedule. To get a comparable for the seeding process, the game was added.

Barron came into the game with a 2-7 record, but had put up good fights against quality teams such as Durand, Rice Lake and Amery, so the Panthers knew they couldn't take this game lightly.

What the Panthers produced was an unselfish game that kept everyone involved in the offense. Four girls scored in double figures as the Panthers hit more than 50 percent of their shots (23-44).

Mia Krogseng led the Panthers with 16 points. Claire Frankiewicz finished with 14, Kolbi Juen 12 and Abby Widiker 10. Krogseng and Frankiewicz also combined for 15 rebounds and 13 assists.

Central coach Luke Fritsche was pleased with the increased offensive contributions from Juen and Widiker. He said Juen was highly aggressive in getting after offensive rebounds. All of Widiker's points came from the perimeter, including hitting both of her three-point attempts. The Panthers took charge of the game with a 26-6 run in the middle of the first half.

Fritsche said the girls have borrowed from teams like the New England Patriots for their motto for the season. The motto is "1-0," meaning all they are concentrating upon is the game at hand, not what has already happened or what is in their future.

The Panthers have one of the longer holiday breaks among area teams, not playing again until Jan. 4 when they host Somerset. Fritsche said the plan for the break is to work a few new wrinkles into the team's plans, along with sharpening what they already do. The Barron game featured the Panthers playing nearly the entire game in a man defense. This is a relatively new addition to the Panthers' scheme, but the girls have quickly adapted to it. And with two weeks of practice over the holidays, it will likely be even more of a weapon in January.

The girls learned last season that being a conference leader carries some stress. Fritsche said that experience, plus the success the girls see in other sports, makes them more prepared for the title chase this season.

"This is not their first taste of success," he said, citing that most girls were on the cross country or volleyball teams that enjoyed huge success this fall. "The girls know what it's like to be in big games and deal with success."