Focus is on the finish for lady-Rebels

Champlin Park senior Kalli Zimmerman and the rest of the Rebels girls basketball team will open their season at home against Cretin-Derham Hall Tuesday, Nov. 27. (Photo by Nick Clark – Sun Newspapers)

Last winter served as a start in every sense of the word for the Champlin Park girls basketball team.

Playing under a new head coach, the Rebels put together a successful yet unsatisfying season, finishing with a 15-12 record that even last week, the team called nothing more than “a start.”

They also used another word to describe what will define success this coming season, and it is a popular one in basketball circles.

“Our goal for the season has to be finish,” said now second-year head coach Doug Swenson. “That is the one go-to word for the season. Finishing lay-ups, finishing picks when we are screening away, finishing at the free throw line late in the game, and then ultimately finishing games.”

The problem was a persistent one a year ago, and it proved costly.

Swenson said he can recall at least three games where Champlin Park led late, only to watch as missed free throws down in the final minutes, and other composure related issues surfaced in time to turn a sure victory into defeat.

Had those three games gone the other way, the Rebels finish with 18 wins, likely earn a much more favorable section seed in their postseason, and maybe even challenge Osseo for the Northwest Suburban Conference championship the Orioles won a year ago.

The ripple-effect was legit, and it left the girls understanding how slim the margin can be between winning and losing games.

“The good news is we have some experience back from last year,” said senior captain Kalli Zimmerman. “We should be better prepared to handle our responsibilities.”

When the season does begin at home against Cretin-Derham Hall Tuesday, Nov. 27, the Rebels will roll out four starters from last year.

Junior guards Kelli Heytens and Alexis Alexander are both back. Each missed parts of last year with injury, but Swenson said he’s already been encouraged by his team’s guard play in practice.

“They are our starting guards, and everybody knows that,” Swenson said. “That’s a good thing. Those roles are solidified, and in good hands.”

Zimmerman will play on the wing. She emerged last year as a stat sheet filler, finishing second on the team to Alexander in scoring, first in rebounding and first in steals.

“Kalli is kind of an under the radar all conference player, if that is possible,” said Swenson. “She is not flashy, but she gets it done. She does all the little things perfectly, and consistently.”

The coach had similar praise for forward Ali Zopfi, noting the symmetry her and Zimmerman have in the court.

He also had high praise for center Mariya Sampson, who will be a first-year starter, but should present plenty of problems for opponents on the defensive end.

“In our conference, you have to have a post player just to defend against the other team’s post player,” Swenson said. “Mariya can do that. She can play defense on anyone. If team’s want to try and get back to basket points and shoot over an all-state caliber middle blocker in volleyball, you go ahead and try that and see how it works out for you. I like what Mariya brings to our team.”

The hope is it is enough to fill out a lineup that has aspirations of contending for an NWSC championship.

Osseo won it last year, and then extended its season all the way into the Class 4A state championship game.

Swenson said Centennial returns the most talented group of starters in the conference, and added that Park Center is expected to be good.

“But so are we,” he said. “If we can finish like we’ve talked about, I think we can win it. That is what our goal is.”