The Parkers Prairie girls’ basketball team is driven to get back to the state tournament this year and finish the job.
Every time the Panthers take the court, that is the goal they’re pushing towards. It’s why fans will see scores like the one on Monday night. Parkers Prairie welcomed in a 7-2 Henning team and promptly dismantled the Hornets 82-25.
The Panthers scored the first 21 points of the game before Henning finally got on the board with around 9:30 left in the half. They took a 43-14 lead into the break and came out just as energized in the second half. They went on a 23-5 run out of the break as they coasted to their 13th straight win of the season.
“My dad has drilled it in our head that we have to stay intense the whole game,” sophomore guard Micaela Noga said of her father and head coach John Noga. “It doesn’t matter if we’re losing or if we’re winning. We have to play like we can play. It doesn’t matter if it’s the worst team or the best team.”
That attitude shows up on defense every night. Parkers Prairie had 26 steals against the Hornets, led by Noga, Madison Dorn and Ally Taylor who finished with five each. The Panthers also had 24 tipped passes.
Simply put, Parkers Prairie is too athletic on the perimeter for almost every team it plays. They couple that athleticism with a great work ethic on the defensive end. This team can shoot with the best teams in Class A, but it’s on the other side of the ball where the Panthers really set themselves apart.
“From the get-go, I’ve always told them that our defense creates our offense,” John Noga said. “They really buy into that. They work really hard on defense, and they take a lot of pride in it. They work really hard on whatever assignment I give them, to shut down a certain girl. They kind of feed off each other, and I think that’s what really makes us a tough team.”
Offensively, the Panthers still have shooters all over the court. Parkers Prairie hit nine threes against the Hornets, led by Dorn’s six. She finished with 21 points. Noga had 23 and Tamara Schmidt added 16.
Every player who takes the court for this team has the green light to shoot. When you watch them play, there isn’t anyone on the court who looks like they lack confidence. Dorn and Noga are two of the top Class A players in the state, and their confidence and the confidence of their head coach really rubs off on the players around them.
“Every time we touch the ball, we’re told to look to score,” Dorn said. “Don’t be selfish, but you need to look for yourself to score, and everyone knows that they can do that. No one’s been told that you’re not allowed to shoot, and no one does anything that they’re not capable of.”
Offensively and defensively, this team believes it has the pieces in place to make a run at a state title. After last year’s 40-37 loss to Hancock in the section semifinals, Noga gathered his team in the huddle and told them to remember what that loss felt like. He challenged his players to take the necessary steps to get better individually.
The Panthers went into the off-season determined to do that. All five starters on the team played AAU throughout the summer. So far, it looks like the extra work has paid off. Parkers Prairie has yet to slip up against a team it should beat. That happened last year in a 55-52 loss to Hillcrest Lutheran Academy and two years ago when they dropped their first game to a 14-10 Battle Lake team.
“We all wanted to get better,” Micaela said. “We all know what we want and that’s to get to the end, to the state championship and win it. We all want it that bad, so we all worked hard through the summer to the end of July when we did a basketball camp with my dad.”
John Noga feels the biggest difference has come in the team’s mental toughness. He points to the Isle and Pequot Lakes games as the two games where he felt like his team could have come out of the game with a loss. He challenged his players before both of those games, and they responded by winning them by a combined 23 points.
“That’s where this group has matured from last year,” John said. “Last year, at times there would be mental lapses, mental breakdowns. Where this year, it’s how we play the game. We don’t play down to the competition. We just play the way we play. Really to this point, I haven’t seen us one time just try to walk on the floor and win.”
The players know how important this season is to their goal of capturing a championship. This core unit has been together for years, but will start to break up after this year. Schmidt and Kaylee Dorn are senior captains and fellow senior Amber Guenther comes off the bench and gives the Panthers some quality minutes.
This team knows this is its best chance to capture a state title since the Panthers finished third during Sari Noga’s senior season two years ago. Getting back there and winning it is what Parkers Prairie is pushing for every time it takes the court.
“I think we’re pretty motivated,” Madison said. “Our loss last year was tough. We lost a senior, but we have all five starters back again. Knowing that we’re going to lose a couple major seniors this year, I really think this is our year to push. If we set our minds to it, and we play the way we’ve been playing, we can go as far as we want.”