One way or another, a program was going to make history on Friday night.
West Central Area and Henning have never been to a state tournament before in girls basketball. That will change for Henning after the Hornets won the Section 6A championship in Morris by overcoming a double-digit first-half deficit and winning 56-50.
“I don’t even have words for this right now,” Hornets’ junior guard Ellie Dague said. “We’ve had a lot of adversity in Henning the last few years, and this has been our goal since we were fifth and sixth-graders. We felt like this group would go to state, and we were going to work hard and put in the time to get there.”
In the end, Dague just wouldn’t let Henning lose. She had a game-high 32 points and scored from every level. Dague got to the rim, while also knocking down four threes. She then put the game away with eight straight free throws down the stretch.
“I just didn’t want us to lose,” she said. “I was going to help the team whatever way I could, whether it was making the right pass, scoring, getting fouled, playing good defense. It was anything to get the win.”
Henning (28-2) put together its best season in team history this winter with the Hornets’ only losses coming against Holy Family Catholic (13-16) and in a one-point game against Wadena-Deer Creek (15-13), both of which are Class AA schools.
Henning is ranked fourth in the Feb. 26 Class A polls through Minnesota Basketball News. Part of the Hornets’ run in the regular season included a 72-48 win over West Central Area (22-8) on Jan. 2, but the Knights gave them a much bigger problem on Friday night.
West Central Area came out swarming defensively and knocking down shots of its own. The Knights led 22-10 with almost 6:30 left before halftime when Elizabeth Rustan and Lexi Bright hit back-to-back threes.
“Hats off to them,” Dague said. “They shot the lights out in the first half. They had us in trouble defensively where we couldn’t help off of them.”
Senior guard Kaylyn Ulrich was the catalyst of that as she finished with all 14 of her points before the break. Ulrich connected on six field goals, including two triples.
“I was giving it all I had. Playing like there was no tomorrow,” Ulrich said. “I’m proud of how far we’ve come. We played them earlier in the season, and they’re a good team. I’m just proud of our season.”
The Knights led with almost 5:30 left in the game when senior Hailey Bennett knocked down a three that made it 45-43. Henning tied it back up, and Sydney Eckhoff got free underneath the basket for a lay in that made it 47-45 with a little more than three minutes left. The Hornets never trailed again as they got defensive stops and hit their free throws to secure the win.
“I’m proud of them,” WCA head coach Eric Schoenbauer said of his team. “They fought all night long. We tried to give ourselves chances. They just ended up making a couple more plays than us in the end.”
Bright had a team-high 17 points for the Knights, while seven WCA players scored in all.
“We got the looks we wanted,” Schoenbauer said. “We just didn’t finish a couple times. They fought hard all night long.”
Every time the Hornets needed a big play, they went to Dague. She features a combination of size, shooting and ball-handling ability that is not seen very often at the guard position at the Class A level. Schoenbauer felt a few more calls could have gone the Knights’ way as Dague created for Henning, but officials let the teams play throughout the night.
“If I’m candid, when you’re creating space with your body, you can’t extend your arm. We talked to the officials, and it didn’t happen,” Schoenbauer said. “I know that’s part of the game and everything. She uses her body well, and she’s physical...She’s good.”
The win for the Hornets puts the finishing touches on the progress this program has seen over the last three years. Henning went 15-12 in 2017-18 before finishing 18-9 with a second-round exit in the playoffs last winter.
The Hornets now wait to see who their opponent is at the state tournament when they open up play on March 12 at the Maturi Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
“This team has no quit,” Dague said. “We just keep going. We’ve worked really hard for this.”
The Knights can take pride in wrapping up one of their best seasons in program history as well. It’s a season that finished with a Pheasant Conference and subsection title before pushing one of the top-ranked teams to the brink on Friday night.
“I’m proud of this group,” Schoenbauer said. “We had some tough games in the season that made us ready for this game...They came to battle. They became one in the end and they played for a common goal. That’s the big part that I’m proud of.”
HENNING 26 30 - 56
WCA 32 18 - 50
HENNING SCORING - Faith Fisher - 2; Ellie Dague - 32; Megan Weber - 7; Sydney Eckhoff - 7; Abi Eckhoff - 4; Kyle Frederick - 4
WCA SCORING - Hailey Bennett - 3; Brynn Fernholz - 4; Kaylyn Ulrich - 14; Lexi Bright - 17; Kaitlyn Hansen - 2; Elizabeth Rustan - 6; Claire Stark - 4