MAYER – Injuries happen throughout the course of the season. Luckily for the Mayer Lutheran girls basketball team, they feature a ton of depth on this year’s team. That depth was crucial for the Crusaders as they picked up a big 67-56 win over rival Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity Saturday night.
“It feels really good,” senior Olivia Tjernagel said about the win. “Especially on a night like tonight, where we’re trying to honor all these people. It’s a really big game, but it’s super fun. We have a lot of depth. The (players) we have on the bench are super helpful in games and in practice. Our coach really pushes that. It’s a lot of fun.”
“We talk about it all the time,” Mayer Lutheran coach Kris Gustin added. “Every girl has to be ready to step up. You never know when an injury is going to happen. Girls are getting an opportunity. They have to go out there and play. It’s been really fun to see the girls come out there and play and be ready to go.”
With the Crusaders missing three players out with injuries, Mayer Lutheran relied on their depth. A quick start from Lexi Schermann, combined with big games from Olivia Tjernagel and Brooke Paulsrud led the Crusaders to the big win.
Schermann, who’s been one of the top scorers for Mayer Lutheran all season long, came into the matchup struggling in the past few games. From 3-point range, Schermann was just 1-for-18 from deep in her past six games. Her lone make from 3-point range came in a win against Heritage Christian Academy Jan. 20. That didn’t stop the senior from giving Mayer Lutheran a spark early, knocking down her first two 3-point attempts to get the Crusaders rolling early.
“Absolutely huge,” Gustin said about Schermann knocking down two early 3-pointers. “It’s a psychological game. You start playing mind games with yourself when your shot doesn’t go in. We all know that shooters shoot themselves out of slumps. We talk about it every day with our shooters. You just have to keep firing it, and ultimately, things will come together. It was great to see her hit those first couple.”
With Schermann getting Mayer Lutheran off to a quick start, it was time for another senior to make her mark. This time, it was Olivia Tjernagel who got the start for the Crusaders with Lilly Wachholz out with injury. Tjernagel finished with 10 points and four rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end.
“Just play strong and give it all I have,” Tjernagel said. “For being injured at the beginning of the season, and now just coming back, it’s motivating me to do my best for my team.”
Tjernagel stepping up her game has been nothing new for Mayer Lutheran. She’s been playing her best basketball lately, and her coach has taken notice.
“Olivia’s played about as good as I’ve ever seen her play in her high school career,” Gustin said. “She’s being physical. She’s rebounding. She’s defending. She’s done a lot of things really well. She started to play well even when Lily was healthy, but has really stepped up. Part of it is, she’s a senior. This is it. She doesn’t play a spring sport. She sees the light at the end of the tunnel. I think that’s motivated her, and she’s been great for us.”
While Mayer Lutheran got off to a good start, LP/HT didn’t flinch. A 3-pointer from Taylor Ebert gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 23-22 with under eight minutes left to play.
“We know we’re going to get a battle from them,” Gustin said. “They have a dynamic point guard who really runs the floor and takes care of her teammates. They have a couple of shooters, too. I thought we did a really good job of not letting other girls beat us. That was key for us. They’re a great team. They are well-coached. They’re going to defend well. They make things difficult.”
After watching LP/HT take the lead for the first time, Mayer Lutheran responded immediately. A 20-4 run by the Crusaders took control of the game as they used their size inside to change the momentum of the game. In that stretch, the Crusaders used offensive rebounds and their size to gain the edge before halftime.
“I thought we had an opportunity if we wanted to be aggressive on the boards,” Gustin said. “I thought that was our opportunity to score some easy buckets. I figured they were going to come out and play us in zone, and they did, so your tendency is to rely on the 3-point shot. We didn’t shoot very well in the first half, but we rebounded. That’s huge. I thought our girls were very aggressive attacking the glass.”
For the game, Mayer Lutheran had 21 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points.
“We’ve got to practice rebounding,” LP/HT coach Mike Lee said. “If we rebound the first half, it’s a tie game or we could even possibly be up. I haven’t seen the stats, but I would guess we gave up 12 to 15 points on second chances. They crashed the boards hard and they go and get that ball. We just kind of let them do that in the first half. I thought we did a little better in the second half, but that was tough to come back from.”
With the big run late in the first half, Mayer Lutheran took a 42-33 lead over the Bulldogs into the locker room at the half. Despite being down nine, Lee liked the way his girls battled throughout against one of the top teams in Section 4A as a team.
“I believe we are starting to not rely on Marissa for everything. We believe we can start playing as a whole team. Marissa’s a great player and she can do great things, but it’s tough to beat a team by one player. We are beginning to see that a little bit more as a team. Our kids are beginning to step up, so that’s nice.”
Senior Emily Rademacher was one of the girls who stepped up for LP/HT. Despite dealing with foul trouble throughout, Rademacher finished with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting.
“Emily has played really well this year without fouling,” Lee said. “She got two fouls pretty early that kept her out. We needed her in the second half. She eventually fouled out, but she did well. This is the first game she’s really been in foul trouble where it hurt.”
Mayer Lutheran’s defense was good enough in the second half to keep the Bulldogs at bay, and senior Brooke Paulsrud was a big reason why. LP/HT scored just 23 points in the second half as Mayer Lutheran held on for the win. To go with 14 points, Paulsrud also had eight rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block for Mayer Lutheran.
“Brooke kind of does whatever we need,” Gustin said. “Both offensively and defensively. She’s been our point guard and our post. That provides us some flexibility. We put some plays in where we can use her passing. Defensively, she can match up with a post or a guard. That helps our team a lot.”
While the Bulldogs can find things to build off of in the loss, they know how important it is to finish the regular season strong. While they’re still searching to secure a top-three seed, each game is big down the stretch for LP/HT.
“We need to win the rest of our games,” Lee said. “We should be No. 3. I don’t like that QRF because there’s a team that plays absolutely nobody that’s going to have 18 wins. They could bump us to No. 4. That would put us against Mayer in the section semifinals, assuming that we can get that far. I believe we have a team that can do that. I’d like to see Mayer in the finals if at all possible. I’d rather play Heritage first if we have to.”
For Mayer Lutheran, coming off another big win, they are in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed. While the Crusaders are poised for a deep playoff run, they know how important it is to take one game at a time.
“We’re all super excited and super motivated, but it’s one step at a time,” Tjernagel said. “It’s taking it each game. You can’t really look ahead.”