Back in Class A tournament, second-seeded Wagner girls basketball seeks underdog role
"There’s a lot of hem and haw about all these other teams around the state," said Wagner coach Mike Koupal. "Nobody's saying a whole lot about us, and we use that as fuel for the fire."
WAGNER, S.D. — It’s a different year, but a similar mentality for the Wagner girls basketball team heading into its second Class A state tournament in as many seasons.
Starting against seventh-seeded Rapid City Christian on Thursday night at the Watertown Civic Arena, the Red Raiders will look to make good on the No. 2 seed they earned on the strength of a 22-1 season and a 72-52 win over Tea Area in the SoDak 16. However, just as was the case when Wagner carried the No. 1 seed into the postseason a year ago, those within the program feel they’re being doubted and are leaning into an underdog mindset.
“We didn't end the way we wanted to last year, and we’ve played with a chip on our shoulder,” said Wagner head coach Mike Koupal. “I consider us a decent team, under the radar a lot. There’s a lot of hem and haw about all these other teams around the state. Nobody's saying a whole lot about us, and we use that as fuel for the fire.”
Returning all but one player after a fourth-place finish last season, the Red Raiders have been among the top contenders to make another run all season. Apart from a one-point loss to Vermillion (which entered the postseason as the No. 3 team in Class A) in January’s Hanson Classic, Wagner breezed through its schedule.
With Class A’s top scoring offense (68.1 points per game) and fourth-best scoring defense (33.7 points allowed per game), the Red Raiders’ average scoring margin of plus-34.4 points per game towered over the rest of the class, more than five points clear of the next-closest team (Red Cloud, 29.3). Not even top-seeded Hamlin, the only remaining undefeated team in all of South Dakota prep girls basketball at 22-0, dominated opponents to the same degree Wagner did, finishing with an average margin of plus-27.9.
Including the Red Raiders’ lone loss, they had four of 23 games decided by fewer than 20 points. And despite what they might be hearing from critics, Wagner’s dominance has come against the fourth-most difficult schedule in the class, with an opponent win percentage of .600.
“A lot of people said this year we don't play a very stiff competition. It's hard when you're beating teams by 30,” Koupal said. “Tea Area is a good team, we won by 20. It just shows that we have players that can play.”
In 13 games against teams with winning records this season, Wagner won by an average of 25.7 points per game — no win closer than 16 points — a margin that would still rank third in Class A. Against competition at .500 and below, the Red Raiders sent an even stronger message, winning by 45.8 points per game.
The Red Raiders are led by 6-foot-2 freshman Ashlyn Koupal, who put up 21 points, seven rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.2 blocks per game, alongside seniors Emma Yost (15.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game) and Shalayne Nagel (11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 4.1 steals per game). Wagner rounds out the starting lineup with two veteran guards, as junior Macy Koupal and senior Eve Zephier combine for 12.5 points and 8.4 assists per game.
It’s an illustration of how Wagner has matured over the past year. Koupal said after reaching the state tournament last season, the Red Raiders became complacent, but that won’t be the case this time around.
According to Koupal, the loss to Vermillion taught his team a valuable lesson in what is required to close out games against other elite opponents, and that most recent reminder is underscored by last season’s tournament experience, during which the Red Raiders played in two games decided by eight points or fewer and a third that was a six-point game with less than three minutes to play.
“If you put time in, it's going to reward you in the end with something like this,” Koupal said of earning another shot at a state title. “This is what these girls are working for. I'm just on the sideline yelling during the game, but they're the ones taking care of all the business.”