The Henning boys basketball team won the Minnesota Sports Awards “Sports Moment of the Year” last year as they won the Class 1A state championship in memory of teammate Jacob Quam who died in a car crash in 2017.
This year, both the boys and girls basketball teams are trying to write new stories.
The boys want to prove they have staying power with the top competition in the state after their emotional run last year. And the girls want to pave the way and inspire future female athletes at Henning.
“Our banner in the gym, the logo is 'Write a new story,'" Henning boys basketball coach Randy Misegades said. “Last year is over and done with and that’s a great memory and we’ll always have that. But these guys have something great in mind for this year too that they want to accomplish.”
Both teams have written a good first chapter to their stories. They both have identical 19-1 marks, with their only losses coming against tiptop competition at holiday invites. And both are ranked high in the Class A polls — the boys at No. 2 and the girls at No. 3.
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Henning girls coach Michael Hepola said. “We’ve still got to win some games to hopefully get a conference championship. We’ve still got to make a nice run in the playoffs to see how far we can get with it. But I think the girls are focused and ready to make a name for themselves as well. Everything is in front of them and they know they’ve still got some work to put in.”
Many of the Hornets girls basketball players were on the Henning volleyball team that went to state this fall. It was the first state tournament appearance for Henning girls in either volleyball or basketball. They want to repeat that experience this winter and show future generations of girls from Henning that they can play for championships, too.
“We want it so bad,” junior guard Ellie Dague said. “No girls team had gone before for basketball or for volleyball. So if we can set the bar not only for us now, but for kids coming later. All the little kids coming to games, they’ll look up to us and want to do it, too.”
They want to have the same impact on the future Henning basketball players that the boys team had on them last year. As they sat in the stands watching the boys compete at the state tournament, they were inspired to match them and make a run of their own.
“We were down there last year and we were saying, ‘Wow, I can’t wait, this is going to be us next year,’” Dague said. “And we actually went to state in volleyball and the second we won after the section championship, we turned to each other and said we’re doing this in basketball. It’s just a feeling like you can’t describe.”
The Hornets know what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin. The whole group of girls starting this year have been playing together since their freshman and sophomore seasons. Henning went 15-12 and lost in the first round of the section tournament in 2018 and went 18-9 and lost in the second round to Pelican Rapids last year.
“That was definitely a rebuilding year, we got spanked a few times,” Dague said. “It’s been nice, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else with anybody else, because we really rebounded and worked hard in the offseason and worked hard in practice.”
The Hornets are finally fully healthy after playing much of the last two seasons without Dague, a star guard who leads the team in scoring. She tore her ACL at an AAU tournament in Virginia and missed 31 games between her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“It was hard,” she said. “It’s hard to not be able to run. A lot of people don’t like running, but just getting back to it was like, ‘Man this feels good.’ I give a lot of credit to the people around me who had to deal with me.”
Being without Dague forced the rest of the team to step up in her absence and gave more players an opportunity to get valuable experience. And Hepola’s squad is benefiting from its depth. He says he’s had four or five different girls that can lead his team in scoring on any given night. It could be Dague or junior guard Megan Webber — the team’s best outside shooter— or senior posts Abi or Sydney Eckhoff, senior forward Autumn Grasswick, senior Katelyn Zillmer or junior guard Kylie Frederick. Freshman Faith Fisher also finds floor time among the team stacked with upperclassmen.
“We usually go seven or eight deep and they’re all contributing,” Hepola said. “They’re not out there just for show. To be honest, we have probably five or six other kids that aren’t getting any minutes right now, that would normally be playing a lot for us and would probably be starting for a lot of the teams that we’re playing. They’re freshmen right now and they’re biding their time.”
While the girls are fighting for their first state tournament appearance, the boys are figuring out how to move forward after winning the state title. Last year was great, but they’re aiming at another title and their focus has to be on what’s ahead, not what is behind them.
“Last year state was sort of the goal, and then to get hot enough to win it was beyond anything we could comprehend,” Misegades said. “And then we realize we are pretty good and then on the other side of it you know that you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We’ve had to embrace that challenge and know that we’re not sneaking up on people anymore. We can’t play the underdog role anymore.”
The Hornets returned three starters from last year’s team — Blake Wallevand, Parker Fraki and Isaac Fisher. New starters Blaine Wallevand and Brandon Trana saw major minutes coming off the bench last year.
Without a true post — the tallest player on the team stands 6-foot-2 — the Hornets win games by outshooting opponents, keeping five shooters on the court at all times. They play fast, utilize a full-court press and dig down low to keep teams from beating them inside.
It’s the same model that worked for them last year, and the team is trying to double down and prove they belong at the top.
“Last year we had Jacob to push us through and people said maybe that’s the only reason they won, because they had that story going behind them,” Blake Wallevand said. “This year it’s a big push that we not only have that, but we have talent and effort to go along with that.”
Though this year’s Hornets are trying to move on from last season and build a new narrative, they haven’t forgotten their friend and teammate. Quam would have graduated last season, but all of this year’s players were friends of his. His locker in the boys locker room still has his name plate above it and his practice jersey and basketball shoes inside it. Misegades says he sees no reason to remove it.
“There’s still lots of stuff about (Quam) going on,” Blake Wallevand said. “Even now on social media, there’s a nomination for a national award that has to do with him. And you see No. 33 everywhere. And you always have the thought in the back of your mind that you play every chance that you get, and don’t take any game or any time with your family for granted, because he would kill to have that time back if he could get it.”