Kohler: “They’re excited about their legacy now”

Alexandria girls’ basketball coach Wendy Kohler wasn’t surprised with how well her team came out in its season opener on Tuesday night and she won’t be surprised if the Cardinals end up back in the mix for a section finals appearance by the end of the year.

That’s the kind of confidence she has in her team despite losing more than 950 points and 400 rebounds from three graduating seniors a year ago. This year’s team might be a new-look group to a lot of fans and teams around the Central Lakes Conference, but Kohler has seen what they’re capable of coming up through the program and has liked what she’s seen.

Senior guard Jess Syvrud (back, right) talks things over with junior Karly Betterman (21) during a free throw in the first half on Tuesday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“It’s kind of interesting because this seems like a new team to a lot of people but it really doesn’t to me,” Kohler said after her team rolled over Little Falls 57-24 on Tuesday night. “These are all siblings now coming through of kids that I’ve coached. We’re coming around to more Thuls, to more Bruzeks and more Christiansons. The siblings are coming through now and the kids have come up around the game. They’ve grown up around our system, and they understand the defensive expectations of our system.”

Some of the faces may have changed but those defensive principles are still the same. Alexandria pressured Little Falls into turnover after turnover on Tuesday as the Flyers struggled to get anything going on offense. They were held to just four points through much of the first half before Alexandria took a 37-7 lead into the break.

The Cardinals might not have as much length on the perimeter as they have had in the last few seasons, but their team speed helps make up for that. Amanda Christianson, Dani Strater, Karly Betterman, Jess Syvrud and Kalli Bowser were the starters in the season opener and Kohler went to her bench early on to keep girls fresh.

That allowed Alexandria to wear down a Flyers team that was still clinging to hope midway through the first half. The Cardinals broke things open by creating a lot of easy opportunities on offense with their defense. That’s hardly a new approach for this program, but it’s one that the girls continuously buy into every season.

“This team loves to play defense,” Kohler said. “They really move their feet. They love to fly around out there. They love the defensive schemes we run, the 1-3-1 and the pressing. This team’s going to be able to get up and get after teams man-to-man, too. That’s going to be a strength of this team. We don’t have to beg them to play defense at all.”

They also don’t have to get on players about sharing the basketball. Kohler says her message to her team is simple: make the passes you should make and take the shots you should take. That’s exactly what they did against the Flyers as the Cardinals passed up good shots for great shots all night.

Even their most established scorer recognizes that’s how it has to be for this team to be successful. Christianson averaged 12.1 points per game last season and figures to see that go up as the primary scorer this winter. She knows she can’t do it alone, though.

“There’s no stars on the team,” Christianson said after scoring 16 points against Little Falls. “We all play as one and that’s exciting…all of us just have to do our job and each of us has to put up some points. There may be some that have a better game some days, but it will go back and forth. Each person can do great in any game, so it’s a big part of our team to keep doing our part.”

That continuity is part of why this team was so excited to take the court Tuesday night. They know a lot of people expect them to take a step back this year after losing so much production from a year ago. Girls like Lauren Trumm, Cara Wood and Whitney Gesell left their own mark on the program. Now this next wave of players is ready to do the same.

“Our expectations are high,” Kohler said. “They’re not going to lower their expectations because kids graduate. They’re excited about their legacy now and what they can do for Cardinal basketball.”