Shifting Focus: Packers gearing on what they will hope will be a return to state

Published 8:03 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The final buzzer had sounded and the Austin girls basketball team had just knocked off No. 1 ranked Red Wing 73-70 on Saturday, when Austin senior Kiwi VanZant found herself wondering what had just happened.

She watched her teammates begin to celebrate and took a moment to let it all sink in — the Packers had advanced to their first Section 1AAA championship since 2008.

“It seems unreal. When we finished our game against Red Wing, it took a second for me to realize we just beat Red Wing,” VanZant said. “We’ve been going hard in every practice to get here.”

Austin’s Chloe Sheehan powers up with the shot against Red Wing in the first half Saturday during the Section 1AAA semifinals at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center. Eric Johnson/

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The Packers are now shifting their focus to a Northfield, a team that ended Austin’s season with an 80-44 ousting in the Section 1AAA semifinals last season. The teams will meet up in the same venue at 6 p.m. Friday in Mayo Civic Center, but a lot of the faces have changed.

Austin (19-8 overall) split the season series with Northfield (17-11 overall), which graduated some talent from year’s team that finished second place in the Minnesota Class AAA State Tournament.

Austin senior Abby Lewis remembers that game last season and she’s hoping the Packers can return the favor and finish something they started eight years ago.

“(Northfield) ended our season last year, so it just seems right to kind of do the same thing to them. It’s definitely a bigger stage game,” Lewis said. “Ever since we played together in Austin Youth Basketball in fourth grade, this has been our dream to play in this game. It means a lot to finally be at this point where we can make it. I don’t think we would be where we are without AYB. All of our parents were super supportive and the community has been there.”

Northfield, which beat Kasson-Mantorville 56-53 in the Section 1AAA Semifinals, has a go-to player in senior center Rachel Kelly and sophomore Lizzie Berkvam is a threat as well.

On the other side Austin has plenty of players that can put up a double digit scoring game on a given night, including freshman guards Hope Dudycha and Emma Dudycha, juniors Colie Justice and Kyra Walters and Lewis.

“Rachel Kelly is one of the best players in southern Minnesota and she’s one of the best players we go against all year,” Austin head coach Eric Zoske said. “We know she’s their best player, but if I’m the coach for Northfield, I don’t know who you look at it and say we have to shut down this one person. We have a blend of multiple girls that can do damage to the scouting report of the other team and ruin their game plan.”

Winter weather has put a damper on practice schedules this season, but with Austin and Northfield both getting a full week of practice, it’s likely both teams will put up their best effort on Friday.

Austin’s Erica Lundberg drives off the break against Red Wing in the first half Thursday during the Section 1AAA semifinals at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center. Eric Johnson/

Austin senior Chloe Sheehan said this is a game the Packers have been waiting to play in for a long time.

“This has been our goal forever, and we’ve talked about it since summer,” Sheehan said. “Our effort in the offseason has been there. We’ve been lifting weights and we’ve been coming in the summer and working hard. That has pretty much led us to this point.”