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Devils Lake brings young, experienced roster to N.D. state girls basketball tournament

With less than nine minutes remaining, Fargo North had rallied to a 46-46 tie against Devils Lake. A lot was on the line—the season was over for the losing team, while the winner advanced to the North Dakota Class A girls high school basketball tournament.

Devils Lake responded with a 16-0 run en route to a 67-50 win Saturday in the East Region tournament state-qualifier game.

"We knew what we had to do,'' Firebirds junior Mattea Vetsch said. "We kept calm. We didn't panic.''

Chalk some of that up to experience. Devils Lake has a young team, with only two seniors on the roster. But in terms of tournament experience, this is a veteran unit.

Devils Lake hadn't qualified for the state basketball tournament since the 2008-09 season until advancing last season. This fall, the Firebirds qualified for the state volleyball tournament for the first time since the 2009 season. The majority of the current basketball team was on both of those state tournament teams.

"These kids have played in the spotlight,'' DL basketball coach Justin Klein said. "They've played a lot more comfortably under it this year.

"Last year was kind of a surprise when we got to state. This year we felt we were supposed to get there. I think the kids felt a little more pressure. But they've fought hard to get there.''

The Firebirds take an 18-6 record to state. That's an improvement over last season's final 11-15 record. And, even with a veteran lineup, success has come with a bit of a different style after 2016-17 regular Averi Ziegler suffered a knee injury during the volleyball season that has kept her out of the basketball season.

"It took some time out who was going to fill Averi's role,'' Klein said. "That was a huge loss for us. She was our strongest player and our best post player. We had to change some things offensively and defensively.''

Minus Ziegler in the middle, Devils Lake has countered with more pressure defense. Four players average two or more steals a game—Jess Mertens (3.4), Vetsch (2.8), Chiara Olson (2.2) and Taylor Windjue (2.0).

"We're probably a little quicker team this year,'' Klein said. "We play fullcourt pressure defense. We've given teams fits with our pressure. And with our depth, I think we can wear teams down.

"We don't want to slow games down. We attack teams on defense. We attack the hoop.''

Vetsch (15.5 ppg), Mertens (10.6 ppg) and Windjue (9.1 ppg) lead a balanced offense.

"Last year was a lot of fun,'' Vetsch said. "This year was more satisfying. We proved that last year wasn't a fluke, that we're a good team.''

Devils Lake at a glance

• Record: 18-6, East Region No. 3 seed.

• Coach: Justin Klein.

• State tournament opener: The Firebirds, making their second straight appearance in the Class A state tournament, play Mandan (18-6, West No. 2 seed) at 7 p.m. Thursday in Fargo in the state quarterfinals.

• Firebirds starting lineup: 5-9 soph. G Jess Mertens (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.4 spg), 5-7 jr. G Mattea Vetsch (15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.8 spg), 5-8 jr. G Taylor Windjue (9.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2 spg), 5-8 jr. F Chiara Olson (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 spg), 5-10 jr. C Kyleigh Toso (3.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

• Top reserves: 5-8 sr. Alex Palmer (4.2 ppg, 3 rpg), 5-8 soph. Abby Johnson (5.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg), 5-10 jr. Abby Heilman (5.3 ppg, 4 rpg), 5-8 fr. Jailyn Martinson (5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg).