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Winner begins quest for its ultimate goal: Undefeated Warriors face Roncalli in Class A quarterfinals

WINNER--Prior to the season, Winner girls basketball team set out on a mission to reach the Class A state tournament, and now that it has been accomplished, there is a much grander one at stake.

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Winner senior Gabriel Kocer (25) shoots over Redfield/Doland's Trista Frost during the Class A SoDak 16 on Thursday at the Corn Palace. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

WINNER-Prior to the season, Winner girls basketball team set out on a mission to reach the Class A state tournament, and now that it has been accomplished, there is a much grander one at stake.

The second-seeded Warriors enter Thursday's 1 p.m. quarterfinal tilt with No. 7 Aberdeen Roncalli (17-4) at Sioux Falls Arena with an unblemished 21-0 record and the prime operative of ending the weekend with a state championship.

Winner head coach Larry Aaker has stressed to his team to take it one game at a time-starting with the Cavaliers-but the team won't shy away from its state championship aspirations.

"That's been the ultimate goal from day one," Aaker said. "Not every year is like that, but we feel like we have the parts to get that done and we've been telling them that all year. They believe it and that's the good part. Now we just need to go out and take care of business."

During Winner's SoDak 16 win over Redfield/Doland last Thursday, it took a large chunk of the first half to adjust playing defense on the 94-foot floor at the Corn Palace. Eventually the Warriors settled in and clamped down in the 50-34 win.

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Winner prefers to trap near the half court line, but with a bigger playing surface, the offense has more time and space to maneuver and potentially beat the trap. The courts at Sioux Falls Arena and the Premier Center will also be 94 feet, so they have been working on a few alterations.

"We can move everybody up a little up a little bit and then the concern is that we might give up a layup, because we have four defenders on the other side of half court," Aaker said. "Another adjustment is to slide everybody back, which worked for us against Redfield/Doland. We're going to look both things and probably try both things and adjust from there."

Roncalli, which routed then-No. 5 Belle Fourche by 22 points in the SoDak 16, has multiple scoring options to test that Winner defense. Three Cavaliers score in double figures, with 5-foot-10 center Mariah Winegar leading the team with 14.1 points on 58.5 percent shooting.

Meanwhile, senior guards Megan Streier (10.9 points) and Jami Ewart (10.4) provide an outside threat for a squad that shoots nearly 50 percent from the field.

"We really focus trying to keep the ball out of the paint," Aaker said. "... The reason we pressure is to try and get them out of their rhythm. We can get some pressure and force turnovers, but the main reason is to get them off rhythm and we need to make sure we can disrupt them that way."
Offensively for Winner, it comes down to maintaining a balanced scoring effort much like it has done all season. Freshman guard Bella Swedlund leads the team with 16.2 points per game, but forwards Gabriel Kocer (12.3) and Morgan Hammerbeck (11.4) can also take over the main scoring load on any given night.

The Warriors also have a strong scoring tandem off the bench with Kalla Bertram's 8.9 points and Maggie LaCompte's 5.8. LaCompte is also third on the team-behind Swedlund (45) and Kocer (43)-with 31 3-pointers, as the team makes nearly eight per game from beyond the arc.

"We know that (Swedlund, Kocer and Hammerbeck) could have a huge game at any time," Aaker said. "But we also have other girls that can do the same thing. We've really stressed playing together, playing as a team and sharing the ball, because the five we put out there at any given time-we have the confidence that they can score."

Roncalli is seeking to build upon last year's consolation championship, while Winner's last state appearance was a 2016 runner-up finish.

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