St. Paul City Conference Preview
In considering the St. Paul City Conference, it's difficult to avoid the 'what if' question as in, 'What if all of the great players from St. Paul actually stayed in St. Paul?' Unfortunately, that's not reality as much of today's…
In considering the St. Paul City Conference, it's difficult to avoid the 'what if' question as in, 'What if all of the great players from St. Paul actually stayed in St. Paul?' Unfortunately, that's not reality as much of today's high-end talent from the Saintly City can be found elsewhere – Minnehaha Academy, De la Salle, St. Agnes, Cretin-Derham Hall, Tartan, Stillwater, Roseville and more. There are more than 20 elite players who have left the district. That's not to say there are no talented prospects in St. Paul because there are. Exhibit A: Liza Karlen of St. Paul Central, the #2-rated player in the Class of 2020. The best of the rest are mostly wearing the black and gold of the Como Park Cougars, who are poised to win another title in 2017-18. Below is the predicted order of finish with last year's record in parentheses.
1. Como Park (12-0)
Como Park returned to respectability with the arrival of Andrayah Adams, a 2016 graduate who now plays for D1 St. John's (NY) of the Big East. When Coach Alexis Gray-Lawson showed up in 2015, she elevated the Como program to a whole other level. She helped Adams become a more complete player, instituted a higher degree of focus and discipline, and pushed the girls to achieve more in the classroom. Gray-Lawson is a taskmaster, but she has the kind of resume that tends to get a player's attention. After all, she is among the top three scorers of all time at D1 Cal-Berkley with nearly 2,000 points, won a gold medal with Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Team USA at the World University Games, and played in the WNBA. After leading Como Park to the AAA state tournament in 2016, Gray-Lawson saw her team compile a record of 19-7 last winter, bowing out in sections to St. Anthony Village. Highlights included wins over Mahtomedi and Minneapolis South in the traditional Twin Cities championship game, and a pair of decisive victories over their archrivals from St. Paul Central. So what lies ahead?
The biggest news around Como is the departure of power forward Elaina Jones, a top 15 player in the Class of 2019 who transferred to De la Salle. Post Asiza Shepherd has graduated, but most of the key pieces are back, along with a busload of talented middle schoolers. Seniors Zarina Sementelli and Don'nika Patterson will man the paint while a flurry of guards attacks in waves. That group includes three-point maestro Makayla Van Nett, who averaged 22 ppg a year ago. She's joined by fellow seniors Autumn Tucker (13 ppg) and Raiyne Adams (8 ppg). Sophomore Dinnea Riley earned a regular spot in the rotation last year but playing time may be harder to come by with the arrival of precocious 8th grader Kay'Lynn Asberry, who led Highland Park out of the wilderness last year. She'll be joined by 7th grader Shania Van Nett, an exceptional prospect who plays way beyond her years. Bottom line: It's Como Park in a cakewalk.
2. Central (10-2)
Ten years ago, St. Paul Central put together what most folks consider to be the greatest season in the history of Minnesota girls basketball. Those were essentially St. Paul all star teams thanks to open enrollment and a talent pool in the city that was much, much deeper. But that was then and this is now. Coach Willie Taylor briefly retired before resurfacing at Stillwater, and St. Paul's best players now enroll at Como Park or leave the district. Coach Marta Waalen's team went 15-11 last year, winning just five non-conference games, all against weaker opponents. Since then, they graduated Taylor Moton, Zarea Richards and Sabrea Patterson. However – and it's a very, very big however – Central still boasts one of the most dominant players in the state in sophomore post Liza Karlen. Standing 6'2″ and strong as a bull, Karlen is a high-end talent destined for the Big 10 or similar. She's a physical force and a threat from anywhere on the floor, averaging 28 and 10 and scoring in a cornucopia of ways. Surrounding her is an experienced group that includes point guard Arlandus Montgomery, forwards Ellie Gubbrud and Terri Sutton, and guards Afiya Ward, Shementhia Vance and Jonquelle Warren. Could Central put it all together on a given day and steal one from Como? Technically yes. Realistically no. But the Minutemen will finish a solid second.
3. Harding (6-6)
If the St. Paul City Conference is all about 'what if' then Harding is about what might have been. When Coach Kelly Sandquist took over the Knights program, there were barely enough bodies to field a team. She restored order, found some players, and had the good fortune to receive the services of then 8th-garder Jaide Pressley and sophomore transfer Emma Ogitchida. The results were magical, as Harding completed its best season in memory with a record of 18-5. Things took a step backward last season after Presley, a top 15 player in the Class of 2020, departed for Hopkins. With the arrival of junior point guard Iyana Rogers-Neely from Humboldt, and Ogitchida having elevated herself into a top 60 college prospect, the Knights looked ready to take a run at Central. Alas, Ogitchida (18 & 6) tore her ACL this summer and the best laid plans were for not. Sandquist still has some nice pieces, however. Rogers-Neely (18 ppg) provides stability and leadership at the point, 6'3″ sophomore Natalie Gasterland is a factor inside, and senior forward Shae Poe is a reliable scorer. The end result will likely be a fight for third with Highland Park.
4. Highland Park (8-4)
Highland Park posted an overall record of 16-10 last season with a third-place finish in the conference, the Scots' best result in several years. They did it largely on the backs of two talented middle schoolers, 6'3″ 2021 post Tamia Ugass and dynamic 2022 point guard Kay'lynn Asberry. Unfortunately for long-time Highland Coach Deb Williams, both are now gone. Talented guard Audrey Martinez-Stewart (#30 in 2021) played a half season at Highland but she's now at Cretin. The Scots also lost post Olyvia Mason and guard Michaela Newman to graduation. That leaves senior wing Ariana Owens as the Scots' primary offensive threat. Owens averaged 9 ppg last year, and can knock down the threes when she gets rolling. Junior forward Bella Cicarelli tore her ACL playing soccer and is likely lost for the season. Sophomore guards Catie Carlson and Tiana Ellis will be relied upon in a major way, but both are battling injuries. Given the circumstances, a .500 finish would be considered success.
5. Humboldt (4-8)
Although Highland was hardest hit by player losses, Coach Tyler Chavez and the Humboldt Hawks were not far behind. In addition to graduated seniors Ana Rodriguez and Staciajohna Randle, Humboldt lost talented point guard Iyana Rogers-Neely who transferred to Harding. The junior has been the Hawks most important player for the past three years. For the long term, it was an even greater blow to lose talented forward Rae'Janae Meadows, a top 50 player in the Class of 2021. Meadows averaged 17 ppg as an 8th grader and displayed tremendous potential. She's now at Roseville. As a result, Humboldt will have just one senior and two juniors. The Hawks leading returners are Maria Stokes, Morgan Behnke and Piper Flemming.
6. Washington Tech (2-10)
The Eagles took both games with Johnson a year ago, and had a 4-18 record overall. When things went well, it was mostly because of senior point guard Talayia Green, a quality veteran who handled the ball well and played with poise and determination. She and then-junior Samiya McCaa combined for 70 percent of the Eagles offense. McCaa (13 ppg) is a talented, athletic forward with nice scoring touch. She'll have to somehow do more as a senior, and help fellow returnees Juanita Guerrero, Tionjanay Greer and Camryn Franke get better. It won't be easy.
7. Johnson (0-12)
The governor may rule the roost in state politics but these Governors don't have much to say in St. Paul. Johnson went winless last year, 0-12 in conference play, 0-18 overall. They did come within a point of Washington and within two of Charter Stars, but they lost 14 of 18 games by 25 or more. Six of those losses were by 50 or more. This season promises much of the same. On the plus side, Johnson does return leading scorer Qusiya Smith-Pugh (10 ppg), along with regulars Marriana Monita and Sydney Birkeland. That might be good enough for a split with the Eagles but no more.
C – Lisa Karlen, Central, sophomore
F – Shae Poe, Harding, senior
F – Ellie Gubbrud, Central, senior
G – Makayla Van Nett, Como Park, senior
G – Autumn Tucker, Como Park, senior
C – Zarena Sementelli. Como Park, senior
F – Ariana Owens, Highland Park, senior
F – Teri Sutton, Central, senior
G – Raiyne Adams, Como Park, senior
G – Iyanna Rogers-Neely, Harding
C – Natalie Gasterland, Harding, sophomore
F – Don'nika Patterson, Como Park, senior
F – Samiya McCaa, Washington, senior
G – Kaylynn Asberry, Como Park, 8th grader
G – Arlandus Montgomery, Central, senior