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MCM girls eager to shine in first state tournament

McCook Central/Montrose's McKenna Kranz, left, drives to the basket as Miller's Erin Moncur, right, defends her during a Class A Round of 16 playoff game on Thursday at the Corn Palace. (Eric Mayer / Republic)

SALEM — There's no pressure for the McCook Central/Montrose girls basketball team.

After coming up one game short of the state tournament twice in the past three seasons, the Fighting Cougars got over the hump with a 59-47 Round of 16 win over Miller last week. Now, MCM head coach Doug Durfee said his team can play in the Class A state tournament like it has nothing to lose. Third-seeded MCM will take on sixth-seeded Aberdeen Roncalli in the final opening round game at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday in Watertown.

"The pressure is off, we are in the state tournament. Hopefully we'll have some confidence right away on Thursday," Durfee said. "We know we can do it and we are never out of the game. Our girls just never quit."

The Fighting Cougars (20-2) enter the state tournament with the second-best record in Class A, but Durfee said competing for a full 32 minutes is at the forefront for his team. He added he saw a little of Aberdeen Roncalli, which beat Todd County 54-44 in the Round of 16 game before MCM's game last week at the Corn Palace.

"Aberdeen Roncalli is very explosive and they have some outstanding athletes. We are going to have to play some really good defense," Durfee said. "If we do our job and contain them a little bit, that should lead to our offense to get rolling."

He added he and his coaching staff will be learning more about the Cavaliers throughout the week to be as well-prepared for Thursday as possible. Aberdeen Roncalli doesn't feature a player taller than 6-feet, but Grace Imbery and Mariah Winegar are both listed at 5-foot-10 and lead the Cavaliers in scoring. Imbery, a senior forward, averages 15.3 points per game, while Winegar, a sophomore center, averages 11.1 points per game. As a team, the Cavaliers are averaging 58 points per game and holding opponents to an average of 38.6 points per game.

For the Fighting Cougars, senior standout Morgan Koepsell leads the way, averaging a double-double for the third straight season. The 6-foot-2 Koepsell is averaging more than 15 points and 11 rebounds per game, while fellow senior post player Natalie Gottlob (6-foot) is averaging 9.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Jacy Pulse leads the backcourt with an average of 10.4 points per game, followed by McKenna Kranz and Morgan Erikson, who each average more than five points per game. Along with Koepsell and Gottlob, MCM features 6-foot-3 sophomore center Abigail Van Ruler and 6-foot freshman Madisen Koepsell off the bench. Both players are averaging more than five points per game and Durfee said it's no secret his team wants to get the ball inside on offense.

"Our success comes from inside-out approach. As soon as we can establish our inside game, that usually opens things up for our guards," Durfee said. "Our focal point is our posts and we have a rotation of four 6-footers coming in the game. We want to establish that early."

With MCM making its first state tournament appearance as a co-op, Durfee said there's plenty of excitement building around the team. He pointed out the MCM volleyball team, which had many of the same players, reached the state tournament as well, where they finished fifth. He said that experience plus the Round of 16 win should have his team feeling comfortable when the ball is tipped on Thursday.

"Both Salem and Montrose are buzzing and going nuts right now," Durfee said. "It's going to be a great week."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information about MCM's key players.