Lion senior Alyssa Johnson gets to the basket against state-ranked Grand Meadow. Photo by S. Lee Epps

Lion senior Alyssa Johnson gets to the basket against state-ranked Grand Meadow. Photo by S. Lee Epps
By : 
Lee Epps

As the Southeast Conference basketball teams took a very brief break before the holidays, a few teams have established themselves as the teams to beat, including all four of the defending division champions - the Houston and Lyle/Pacelli girls plus the Spring Grove and Randolph boys. But the only top-10, state-ranked club is the Grand Meadow girls.

The girls

The power appears to be in the SEC West where state-ranked No. 4 Grand Meadow seeks to dethrone defending state champion Lyle/Pacelli. 

The Superlarks improved to 11-0 (6-0 SEC) with a Dec. 27 home win against Spring Grove. 

GM has been most challenged during a 50-67 overtime victory over Iowa powerhouse Crestwood (Cresco, Iowa), the defending Iowa Class 3A state champion and only team to defeat Minnesota state champion Lyle/Pacelli last year. The Lark ladies defeated Class AA Triton by only six points (78-72).

GM returns all the key players from last year's 22-6 squad, including two First Team All-SEC standouts.

While the Superlarks are most heralded, Lyle/Pacelli (10-2, 5-0 SEC) is also undefeated in league play. The Athletics have not lost since dropping their first two games to Class AA Zumbrota-Mazeppa and Dover-Eyota. 

L/P graduated some star power but returns a pair of All-SEC stars, including Olivia Christianson who had 35 points and 17 steals in Spring Grove earlier this season.

The A's have won a record 96 consecutive conference contests and could make it 97 before the first of two showdowns with Grand Meadow on Jan. 8. 

In the East Division, Houston won its first conference basketball championship last winter and took giant steps in this year's race with a 60-48 win over SEC newcomer Kingsland and an 80-50 pummeling of second place Spring Grove.

The 'Canes' season-opening 52-36 setback against GM will not damage their title hopes unless one of their East Division rivals can upset the Superlarks. Houston went to overtime to edge West Division  Randolph last week, 54-47.

It was the second OT loss for the Rockets, who took L/P into an extra period as well. Randolph appears to be a solid choice for at least third place in the SEC West.

Behind Houston in the East, Mabel-Canton, Kingsland and Spring Grove each already have two league losses. The Cougars have not yet faced the Hurricanes but have competitive losses to both the Knights and Lions in what appears to be a three-way battle while chasing the 'Canes.

In the section, perennial powerhouse Goodhue is state- ranked No. 5 right behind Grand Meadow. Last year's section runner-up, Hayfield, is 3-6 - including a 70-59 home loss against GM.

Spring Grove entered the holidays with three players owning double-digit scoring averages, but the Lions have been outrebounded in every game except for breaking even against Charles City. 

The ladies are shooting a so-so 36% from the field, including a pretty good 31% from 3-point land. The Lions are earning more free throws than the opponents and outshooting them, 58% to 56%.

The boys

Both defending division champions, Spring Grove and Randolph came into their holiday clash with identical 4-0 conference records. The Lions' decisive 66-45 victory extended their SEC conference winning to 65 games. 

Randolph, which returns all of the key players from last year's 19-8 team, was coming off a 51-48 home showdown victory over Grand Meadow, dealing a first SEC loss to the Superlarks.  Chasing GM and the Rockets in the West are LeRoy-Ostrander, Lyle/Pacelli and Schaeffer Academy with winless Glenville-Emmons currently secure in the cellar.

GM has already defeated both the Cardinals and Athletics while Randolph had early wins against Schaeffer and L/P.

Spring Grove, which has won the last eight East Division crowns and has not lost to an East Division rival in six years, entered this season as the favorite again. The Lions - with two returning all-conference performers, including 2018 SEC Player of the Year Alex Folz - are certainly capable but did not had an easy time between a 69-35 opening home rout of winless G-E and the showdown victory over Randolph. 

Late SG scoring spurts produced hard earned wins over both Houston and Mabel-Canton. The road escape at Kingsland came down to the final shot.

But Lion wins over those three contenders, no matter the margins, are critical in the 2019 division race. Mabel-Canton and Kingsland both own early wins over Houston. Lanesboro is winless in league play, but the Burros took Grand Meadow to the wire, 55-52 and lost in overtime at Schaeffer, 49-46.

The lone Lion loss came in a non-conference matchup against Charles City, Iowa (58-56) with a key starter unavailable. Four scorers are averaging in double figures.

SG is shooting a decent 39% from the field, including a commendable 34% from 3-point range. The Lions are outshooting the opposition from the foul line, 67% to 61%.

No Section One boys are state-ranked among the top 10, but Randolph was No. 17 and Rushford-Peterson No. 19. 

In the QRF computer rankings, Randolph was No. 9 after defeating No. 21 Grand Meadow and before falling at No. 27 Spring Grove. R-P was No. 36. After playing at Spring Grove on Thursday, the Rockets won the next night at R-P, 64-46.