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'All the faith in the world': Capturing the Class A title was a team effort for Winner

SIOUX FALLS--The Winner girls basketball team subscribed to the motto 'Whatever it takes' all season and oftentimes played the Imagine Dragons' hit song by the same name on loop during summer workouts.

The Winner bench reacts to defeating West Central to win the Class A state championship on Saturday at the Premier Center in Sioux Falls. (Nick Sabato / Republic)
The Winner bench reacts to defeating West Central to win the Class A state championship on Saturday at the Premier Center in Sioux Falls. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

SIOUX FALLS-The Winner girls basketball team subscribed to the motto 'Whatever it takes' all season and oftentimes played the Imagine Dragons' hit song by the same name on loop during summer workouts.

As the Warriors navigated through the Class A tournament-culminating with a 60-53 win over previously unbeaten No. 1 West Central on Saturday at the Premier Center to secure the first state championship in school history-they lived by the motto.

It wasn't always pretty, but Winner was able to find a way to end each game on the right side of the scoreboard and the result was completing a perfect 24-0 campaign, something head coach Larry Aaker foreshadowed during a halftime speech of a Feb. 12 win over Platte-Geddes.

"They bought in," Aaker said. "We didn't play well against (Platte-Geddes) in the first half and I got after them pretty good. I said, 'You better start believing, because I do. If you start playing as a team, there's nobody that can beat you.' From that time forward, we really came together as a team."

Winner was able to use that team mentality during its state tournament run, as a different player found a way to make crucial plays in each game, perhaps none bigger than senior Gabriel Kocer's performance in the finals.

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Kocer had experienced a state final defeat as a freshman in 2016, but her return trip did not start as planned. In the first two outings, the 5-foot-10 wing player scored a total of 10 points on 4 of 16 shooting.

In the biggest and final game of her high school career, however, Kocer came through when she needed to. With her team facing a 38-32 deficit early in the third quarter, she swished a 3-pointer to tie the game and the Warriors never trailed again in the game.

Kocer would hit another during a 16-0 run that helped Winner take over the game, and another to go up by 10 points with 1:54 to play, finishing with a game-high 21 points.

"I really struggled the first two games," Kocer said. "I don't know if it was nerves or I just wasn't on, but my coach and the fans all told me they believed in me. My coach said he had all the faith in the world in me and it really helped get my confidence back."

Kocer was one of four Warriors to average double figures in the tournament, but the offense was balanced throughout, with another picking up the slack if one was struggling.

Whether it was Kalla Bertram coming off the bench to average 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and scoring 15 points in the quarterfinal win over No. 7 Aberdeen Roncalli or Morgan Hammerbeck bouncing back from a 1 of 9 game to score 16 points to lead the team to a semifinal win over No. 6 McCook Central/Montrose.

That was also true for freshman Bella Swedlund, who scored 40 points in the first two games combined, but managed 12 in the finals on 5-for-16 shooting, so she focused her efforts on rebounding and corralled 13, including five on the offensive glass.

"We balanced it out really well," Swedlund said. "If one person isn't hitting shots, another person is and then there's a game like (MCM), where everyone is hitting it and everyone is having fun. We love this sport and we worked pretty hard."

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