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St. Mary's senior basketball players, from left, Kaitlyn Wanner, Megan Heik, Elizabeth Preszler, Tonya Dvorak and Sydney Smith led the Saints to the state tournament for the first time in 28 years.

MIKE MCCLEARY, TRIBUNE

St. Mary's success did not happen overnight. Nor, however, is it very surprising.

Taking a steady-as-they-go approach, and a focus on faith on and off the court, seniors Tonya Dvorak, Megan Heick, Elizabeth Preszler, Sydney Smith and Kaitlyn Wanner guided St. Mary's somewhere it hasn't been in two decades.

Today, the long road culminates in the school's first Class A state tournament appearance since 1998. The moment is not lost on any of them.

"This was our goal and we thought we could do it, but it wasn't easy," said Smith, the Saints' all-West Region point guard. "Some teams get to state every year it seems like. That hasn't been the case for us. We really appreciate finally doing it and getting over the hump."

Wanner, a three-year starter and one of the top rebounders in the state, said it was more than about basketball.

"Faith is a big part of who we are and what we try to represent," Wanner said. "We've tried to have that be a part of who we are as a team and keep that at the center of what we do."

Shannon Copas, who has led the Saints to a 19-5 record and No. 2-ranking in the state, said the team's passion for basketball and doing things right, is no act.

"They have been absolutely wonderful. Whether it's been going down to the grade school to serve lunches, or just how they treat people on a daily basis, it's an amazing group of young ladies," Copas said. "Our seniors are very good leaders. They set a wonderful example. But really, 1-15 it's an absolutely phenomenal group."

They also happen to be very good at basketball. The Saints face Grand Forks Red River (18-6) today at 3 p.m. in the state quarterfinals at the Fargodome.

St. Mary's has not risen from the ashes of dreadful seasons. The last two years, they advanced to state qualifiers. When they beat Jamestown on Saturday, there was a sense of satisfaction, but nobody is satisfied.

"It feels really good. It took a lot of hard work and dedication and pushing each other in practice," said Heick, a key reserve off the bench. "Right when the game was over it was kinda like, 'Wow, we just did it. This is awesome.'

"Now, it's more like we want to make a statement at state. We want to see how far we can go."

If the Saints can beat Red River, a semifinal showdown likely awaits with No. 1-ranked Century. The Patriots are the tournament favorite, but only one team has defeated Century this season. On Feb. 20, St. Mary's held the Patriots to eight second-half points in a 39-38 win.

Allowing 38 to the top team in state was no fluke. For the season, the Saints allow just 45.8 points per game.

"Defense has been our strength all season. We've worked really hard on it all year," said Preszler, one of eight Saints with double figures in steals on the season. "Some games we might not shoot the greatest or our offense isn't flowing the best, but we know if we play like we can defensively, we'll still have a chance to win. Everybody understands that and is willing to work hard the whole game."

Only seven times this season have the Saints allowed more than 50 points in a game. A big reason for that is the long-armed Dvorak. The West Region's Senior Athlete of the Year can guard any position on the floor. For the season, the 6-foot-2 Dvorak has 52 steals and 45 blocked shots. The future U-Mary Marauder is also second on the team in scoring (12.2) and assists (2.9) per game.

Dvorak's focus has been singular all season -- getting to state.

"We really wanted to help change the perception of St. Mary's basketball. We wanted to be remembered as a team that got to state, and hopefully even more than that," she said.

Dvorak expects there to be nerves when the Saints face the Roughriders, but they're keeping it simple.

"I'm sure there will be butterflies, but that will be the same for everybody," she said. "It's still just basketball."

Dvorak said accomplishing the feat still had not really sunk in, although there was a good reason for that.

"We didn't have practice on Monday," she said regarding the storm. "We couldn't do anything."

Copas said it's important for his players soak it all up, but is not worried about their focus.

"We want them to enjoy the process, enjoy the journey. We're trying to make memories, but at the same time it's a business trip," he said. "They'll be ready to go."

Smith, who will play Division I golf at UND in the fall, said the bonds of the senior class run deep.

"We've been playing together as long as I can remember. Probably since the third or fourth grade," she said. "This is always what we wanted to do. That definitely makes it more meaningful."

The glory was worth the struggle.

"We went through some tough times, but we always had faith we could do it," said Wanner, who averages nearly a double-double (9 ppg, 9 rpg). "This means a lot to us. Now we want to make the most of it."

Reach Tribune sports editor Dave Selvig at (701) 250-8246 or david.selvig@bismarcktribune.com

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Sports Editor