Most years, the Como Park girls basketball team abides by a set of sportsmanship rules. Having not lost a conference game since 2015, the team is no stranger to blowout wins, but during those routs varsity players often were pulled late in games and the team would throttle back.
Not this year.
Upset over the St. Paul Public Schools’ decision to play only conference games, limit the season to 10 games and exclude fans, the Cougars have started the season with four blowout wins and an average margin of victory of 81 points per game. That includes a 96-point win over Washington and a 100-point victory against Johnson.
“I’m angry about it. Now that we’re beating teams by what we’re beating them by, people have a lot to say about how bad they feel for the teams,” junior Ronnie Porter said. “But this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to prove that we deserve better.”
Stripped of valuable nonconference games against the likes of No. 1-ranked Hopkins, the team pleaded for the opportunity to play outside of St. Paul this season to help gain the recognition that comes with playing bigger programs, which in recent years has helped some of its girls get recruited. They also wanted experience against better competition to prepare for a tougher section and possible state tournament berth.
But with first priority being the safety of the players, school and community, the school district stayed strong in its decision to limit the season.
The days of anger and disappointment are fewer and further between as the team shifts its focus to what it can control. They’ll be ready to play a section and state tournament, if allowed. The recent MSHSL decision to hold state tournaments for winter sports has the Cougars feeling optimistic about the possibility.
“We all really understood that we need to take advantage and not take anything for granted, even practices, because there was a point we couldn’t even practice,” junior forward Cloey Dmytruk said. “We all just had to get on the same page and really just be grateful that we’re able to play.”
Coach Olanda England, in her first year as varsity coach, said the team is more motivated than ever to prove its dominance is about their high level play and not about the lack of competition.
“The girls see people responding to other teams that are winning as ‘Oh my god they’re playing great,’ but when they look at us they say, ‘Oh, they’re just playing in St. Paul.’ ”
But coupled with that motivation has been an overwhelming sense of joy just to be playing basketball, which has outweighed the disappointing circumstances, England said.
“This is probably the happiest the girls have been in a long time, just playing basketball,” the coach said.
While the games are lopsided, the experiences with the other teams have stayed positive and cordial. England said her players often reach out to their opponents following a win to say good game.
During the games, the outcome is rarely in question, but England gives her team benchmarks to hit. She’ll push them to hold the opponent under a certain score and to prioritize other parts of the game other than scoring. If they commit a foul, they’ll run laps in practice.
Still, the impact this will have on the team in a section or state tournament looms large. The Cougars have won 67 consecutive conference games, but have lost in the section tournament each of the past four seasons. Their last state tournament appearance was 2016.
“Nothing against the other (St. Paul) teams, they try their hardest and we try our hardest, but we really don’t know how good we are when we’re playing against these teams,” assistant coach Ronald Smith said.
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