Last year, Minnesota State Moorhead enjoyed its best season since its 2008-09 campaign. Its first 20-plus-win season — after averaging merely 15.4 wins in each of the previous five years — would end prematurely of a long-awaited return trip to the NCAA tournament, losing a heartbreaker to Augustana by a mere five points in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament.
One would think that a team that lost its three top scorers to graduation would take a big step backwards. Head coach Karla Nelson — who has never posted a losing record in her 16 full seasons at the helms of the Dragons — simply wouldn’t allow it. Somehow, some way, the Dragons are off to one of their best starts in program history. After suffering an opening night loss, the Dragons have reeled off 13 wins in a row.
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“I don’t think anybody could have predicted this,” junior forward Drew Sannes said. “Yes, you are always hopeful coming into each season. But we have eight freshman, so it was kind of a wild card. We didn’t know what to expect. We knew there was going to be a learning curve, so we are excited to be where we are.”
Sannes and her fellow Dragons are amid the second-longest winning streak in program’s history, trailing only the 16-game run by the 1991-92 team. They have begun to garner national recognition along the way. Last week, they entered the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association poll for the first time since 2009, which was the last time this program made a NCAA postseason appearance. This week, they jumped six spots from No. 24 to No. 18.
“It’s a huge honor, mostly for our program,” Sannes said. “It’s not something we’ve been focusing on. Because when it comes down to it, that’s not what’s going to get us into the tournament alone.”
With their three top scorers gone, Sannes and the other returning players knew they would have to shoulder the load and keep this program trending in the right direction. Junior guard Cassidy Thorson — the top returning scorer from last season — is currently second on the Dragons with an impressive 14.6 points a night. Senior guard Natalie Van Wyhe helps pace the offense, second on the team in both assists and steals.
And then there is Sannes.
Sannes has stepped into her role better than Nelson or anyone could have hoped. She is averaging nearly a double-double a contest as the newfound leader of the red-hot Dragons, scoring 15.8 points per game and pulling down 9.4 rebounds a night. Not only has her hard work propelled her team to the top of the standings, it has propelled her into the spotlight, as she has been named the NSIC Player of the Week three times already this season.
“I was kind of put into that role player position last year with Heather [Strese] and Savannah [Handevidt] ahead of me,” Sannes said. “They were awesome. They kind of allowed me to step back last year, come in to games without a whole lot of pressure on me and figure out what kind of style I wanted or needed to play. This year, obviously knowing I needed to step up because we only have four of us veterans, that has helped me.”
While Sannes and Thorson have made the offense go, they have really done it with team defense. The Dragons are ninth in the country in scoring defense, allowing a stingy 53.6 points a game. The offense may not be amongst the top ten, but it is seemingly improving weekly and is good enough to lead the NSIC in scoring margin behind a +16.6 differential.
“Coach [Nelson] preaches defense and rebounding,” Sannes said. “Where we really found our niche so far is on the defensive end. I wouldn’t say there are any certain tricks to it. We just work hard and have each other’s back on that end and know what we need to do.”
The Dragons knew they had something really special going on Dec. 17. That was when they picked up the season sweep on Northern State, a nationally-ranked power and perennial threat to the NSIC North Division. It was the first season sweep of Northern State by the Dragons since 2012.
“Those [games] are huge,” Sannes said. “Ever since I’ve been here, they’re probably our biggest rivals. They’re known as being one of the top teams in the conference and in the country. Getting those wins were huge for us. They were hard fought battles, not extremely high scoring. We knew we had to come out, work harder, defend and rebound.”
Those were two very close games. The first was a 51-44 fourth-quarter comeback by the Dragons, and the second was a 69-66 thriller, which built a new level of confidence for the Dragons. While the youth of the team experienced the importance of that series, the veterans learned a valuable lesson.
“Our veterans, we know how important those games are,” Sannes said. “The freshman kind of went into those not understanding how important they really are. For us veterans, we know if we’re able to do that, we’re capable of a lot more as long as we come in and do what we’re supposed to do day in and day out.”
The Dragons are certainly on a roll as they prepare to go for their fourteenth in a row this Friday in Sioux Falls against Augustana. But they also know that they are just entering the heart of a very challenging NSIC schedule. While they would love to be part of a return to the NCAA Tournament, they know, for now, they must focus on the task at hand.
“It’s tough to look ahead that far right now, and we don’t really want to do that,” Sannes said. “But it’s huge. It’s our goal. It’s where we want to be at the end of the season. We want to get to that tournament and kind of put our mark on the map. 2008-2009 was the last time we made it to the NCAA tournament, and that’s our ultimate goal to get back there. We have to do that by winning each and every weekend.”