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Rapids looks to defend section title

November 26, 2016 GMT

After coming off a season which produced a state berth, the Grand Rapids girls basketball team is looking to make another run this year. The Thunderhawks open their season Saturday at Princeton, which will be a rematch of last season’s Section 7AAA championship.

For Grand Rapids coach Kris Hamling, Saturday’s opener against a rival like Princeton is important for getting an idea where the Thunderhawks stack up early against a quality opponent.

“It’s a good rival for us to start with,” Hamling said. “Based upon where we were last year at this time, we’re ahead of where we were last year. I think that’s due to lots of experienced players coming back. They know the system, they know the plays and what I expect from them.”

The Thunderhawks return a number of contributors who played a key role in pushing Grand Rapids to the state tournament. On the offensive end, it starts with junior guard Heaven Hamling who led the Thunderhawks in scoring last season, averaging 22 points a game.

From there, the offensive will look to fill in for graduating seniors Kari Kuschel and Hannah Morris.

Hamling said she expects forward Hannah DeMars, a sophomore, to be much improved from last season.

“We need to look to her to score a little more this year,” she said. “I think with the growth she’s had this last year, she’s going to be able to do that very well.”

One of the biggest challenges on both ends this season will be making up for Kuschel’s production on the boards. It’s something Hamling says the team is well aware of.

“They know that’s a huge position that they have to fill,” she said. “They know that they have to step it up enough to fill those shoes that Kari had.”

At the center position inside, Hamling said the team will have plenty of options to work with.

“We have about five girls that could take that spot,” she said. “We have Jordin (McCartney) and Kaylee (Grabarkewitz), Meara Beighley, who has been really aggressive for us under the boards (and) Ashley Henrichsen, another senior who has stepped up. We also have another move-in from Pequot Lakes, Maggie Miska, who is a forward-type post position who is very aggressive. We’ll see how she fits into our system this year.”

Along with Princeton, Hamling expects Hermantown to be one of the toughest section opponents for the Thunderhawks.

“I think Hermantown is going to be a good force for us,” she said. “They’ve got a lot of height coming back and just a lot of speed.”

After Saturday’s game, Grand Rapids heads to another section opponent, Hibbing, Tuesday.

The Thunderhawks play three of their first four games against section competition, which Hamling said gives the team a good idea of where they sit early on.

“It’s nice to start out with those section games and try and get those wins,” she said. “It’s nice to see how things are playing out. Everything does change through to the end (of the season), but it’s nice to see the improvements that we’ve made and the improvements the others made as well.”

Hamling said with a tougher schedule this season, she hopes it will better prepare the team heading into the postseason.

“We’ve added Zimmerman which is great for us and Robbinsdale Cooper,” she said. “It does force us to travel a little bit more, but I’m for it if it does vamp up our schedule a little bit more.”

Like last season the goal is to reach the section finals and win another title. Although Hamling said it comes down to putting in even more hard work to make that happen.

“Our expectations are to get back to that section final and get to state and get that first win,” she said. “But we do know that it all comes down to them. We can’t come into the season thinking that’s what’s going to happen. We have to work extremely hard, even harder than we did last year, to make sure we meet our goals and succeed.”