Uncertainty to celebration: Packers turn a question mark to a state berth

Published 9:49 pm Wednesday, March 24, 2021

On a night when points were at a premium, the No. 3 seeded Packer girls mustered just enough firepower to bring down No. 4 Albert Lea by a score of 45-30 in the Section 1AAA title game in Ove Berven Gym Wednesday.

The win didn’t just give Austin bragging rights in the I-90 rivalry, it put the Packers back in the Minnesota Class AAA Girls Basketball Tournament after a one-year hiatus. That one year also happened to include a pandemic, a sports shutdown and a delayed season that saw the Packers wondering if they would even play a game this winter.

“Last summer we didn’t know what we would have and the girls showed up,” Austin head coach Eric Zoske said. “This winter we had virtual practice and workouts and the girls were there. They’ve done everything that’s been asked of them. This is a great reward for working hard when things weren’t even certain.”

The Tigers (7-14 overall) tied the game at 23-23 when Jordan Juveland converted a three-point play with 13:06 left in the game, but Austin responded with a quick 7-0 spurt that was capped by a Hope Dudycha three. Emma Dudycha put together a 7-0 personal run that put the Packers (11-4 overall) in control with a 37-26 lead with 6:22 left in the game.

“I don’t pay too close attention to the scoreboard,” Zoske said. “I thought we were playing well, but weren’t hitting our shots so we had to grind it out on D. Once those shots started to fall, it opened up our offense a little bit.”

Emma finished with 17 points, three rebounds and two assists and twin sister Hope added 12 points and four rebounds. Both junior guards played big minutes on the team that went to state in 2019, but this year has a totally different feel to it.

“It’s way more special this year, knowing that our season was cut short. Getting the opportunity to play more games at state is all we ever wanted,” Emma said. “We’re really good at hyping each other up as a team. The crowd helps, but honestly we didn’t need it. The team is all you need.”

Reana Schmitt shored up Austin’s defense against AL as she pulled down 13 rebounds, while also scoring four points. This was Schmitt’s first year playing big varsity minutes for the Packers, playing a big role in the middle.

“It was a big honor to play with my teammates. It was pretty new to me and I really appreciate how the team has welcomed me and helped me improve my game,” Schmitt said. “We had to play our game tonight. When they took their long offensive possessions, we just had to get a stop and then go for a quick score.”

Taya Jeffrey hit four straight free throws over a two-minute run to bring the Tigers within 15-14 late in the first half, but Olivia Walsh pulled down an offensive rebound and found Emma for a lay-up. Hope drove for a score with 11 seconds left in the frame to put Austin up 19-14 at the break.

The Tigers claimed a 7-1 to lead to open the game over the first eight minutes. The Packers finally found their shot when Hope knocked down a three-pointer with 11:30 left in the first half to trigger a 12-0 run that saw Ausitn lead 13-7.

Austin has just one senior on its roster in Elyse Hebrink, who closed out her final game in Ove Berven in style as she collected three steals for the state-bound Packers.

Elyse is going to go down as a legend in this town,” Zoske said. “She’s had a fantastic career here and what a way to have her last game here.”

The No. 4 seeded Tigers went 20-87 overall over the four previous seasons. When AL won its  playoff opener over Byron, it was just its second playoff win since 2014. 

“I was proud to vote for coach (Jason) Thompson for Coach of the Year,” Zoske said. “He’s done a fantastic job with his kids. Taya Jeffrey was not 100 percent, but I would take her on my team any day of the week. She showed a lot of heart with a bum ankle.”

While The Packers are headed to state, Zoske took time to give respect to top-seeded Red Wing, which was knocked out of the tournament due to a COVID-19 contact.

“My heart and sorrows go out to the players, coaches and families in Red Wing,” Zoske said. “It’s a tough thing they had to go through and hopefully we can represent our section well.”

Albert Lea 14  16  — 30

Austin 19  26  —  45

Austin scoring: Emma Dudycha, 17; Hope Dudycha, 12; Cassidy Shute, 7; Olivia Walsh, 4; Reana Schmitt, 4; Elyse Hebrink, 2; free throws: 77 percent (10-for-13); rebounds: 27 (Schmitt, 13); turnovers: 9

AL scoring: Taya Jeffery, 11; Jordan Juveland, 7; Kendall Kenis, 3; Nevaeh Wacholz, 2; Kristina Espinosa, 2; free throws: 88 percent (8-for-9); turnovers: 11