Remodeling is never a pleasant experience. Surprises abound, most of them unpleasant.
So when Mandan girls basketball coach Abby Thomas embarked on a makeover of her team in November, she knew she'd encounter some rapids before there was smooth sailing.
Mackensi Higlin, the only senior on the team, admits the Braves had to endure some freaky times in December and January. But, oh, what a payoff.
Mandan heads into Thursday's opening round of the state Class A basketball tournament at the Event Center as the West Region's top seed. The Braves advanced through the regional tournament on the crest of an 11-game winning streak.
The Braves, 18-6, take on Devils Lake, 11-14, at 5 p.m. in the third of four opening day games.
"I've been playing with most of these girls for years. The chemistry has always been there," said the 6-foot Higlin. "It took us a little bit of time. ... Last year we were more post-centered. This year we're guard-centered, so we've had to kind of grow into who we are."
With seniors Miranda Lowman and Hannah Hanson, both 5-11, and 5-9 Alicia Weiand, the Braves were much more concerned with getting the ball inside last season.
After losing all that size, Mandan is a more agile and mobile team this season, a style of basketball that players tend to find attractive.
"It's so fun, extremely fun," Higlin said enthusiastically. "... Our game is running. (Sophomore guard) Kennedy Harris makes amazing passes.
"There's a lot of trust on our team. We trust that Megan (Zander) or I can get the rebound and we get it to Kennedy and everybody just runs."
In the remodeling phase, though, things weren't so pretty. The Braves found themselves on a win one-lose one treadmill that left them 7-6 in the last week of January.
"It was frustrating, not so much with each other ... but because we knew how good we could be," Higlin said.
Then the Braves hit the jackpot -- three straight home wins over St. Mary's, Bismarck and Legacy -- and they were on their way. They haven't lost since.
All three teams stood ahead of Mandan in the West Region standings at the time, and Legacy was ranked fifth in the state media poll.
"The Legacy game was big and with Bismarck we got in foul trouble in the first half. ... We have a bench that can pick it up and play when they have to play," Higlin said.
This season Higlin stands out as the lone senior on the team, but she said she's been the only basketball player from the Class of 2017 for quite a while. She's been playing varsity basketball and volleyball since her freshman year, so she's familiar with all her teammates.
Higlin said being the only conduit for senior leadership hasn't put her in any uneasy situations.
"These are really good girls, so that makes (leadership) super-easy," she said. "Thse girls are super-motivated, so they're really easy to lead. We all feed off each other."
Mandan is the second-most aggressive offensive team in the state tournament, scoring at a 70.4 clip. Fargo Davies leads the way with an average output of 76.5 points.
Higlin (16.3 ppg), 5-10 sophomore Megan Zander (16.3) and Harris (14.0) are Mandan's offensive sparkplugs. Zander (12.3 rpg), Higlin (5.6) and 5-10 junior Courtney Olson (4.3) provide rebounding strength. Harris (4.6 assists per game) has become a reliable and dazzling playmaker who quarterbacks the quick-hitting attack.
Although the Braves are hitting the state tournament on a roll, they didn't roll through the regional tournament. Both the semifinal game, a 71-65 win over Leagacy, and the championship game, an overtime victory over top-ranked Century, were possession-by-possession battles.
"The WDA this year was pretty tough. That definitely prepares you for state, especially because we don't know what's going to happen at state. We're not familiar with the (East Region) teams," Higlin said.
Four of the teams ranked in the top five in the final media poll made it to the state tournament. Third-ranked Grand Forks Red River was derailed in the East Region tournament. Century and Fargo Shanley are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Fourth-ranked Fargo Davies and Legacy complete the top five.
<h3>Turning the corner
Coach Abby Thomas said changing the personality of a team isn't something that's done quickly in preseason workouts. It took awhile for the team to make the on-court adjustments.
There were also off-court changes that were vital.
"The biggest thing is in the middle of the season we started to play together as a team," she said. "We graduated some great kids and we had to adjust. Because we're a lot smaller, we had to play faster."
"There was some adversity, but once we got some of those kinks worked out the team began to play together ... and they became more selfless players," Thomas added.
The vital confidence factor developed in the home sweep of St. Mary's, Bismarck and Legacy.
"(Bismarck and Legacy) are very good teams, and getting those two wins was very encouraging. And we beat St. Mary's about that time, too," she recalled.
When Mandan finished the regular season strong, Thomas wondered if that momentum would make the jump to tournament play.
"What I was impressed with in our kids (at the regional tournament) is we never quit. I was impressed with our resilience and that never-quit attitude," she noted.
Fargo Shanley, 19-5, and Bismarck, 16-8, kick off the girls tournament at 1 p.m. Thursday. Century, 20-4, takes on Wahpeton, 19-5, at 3 p.m. Mandan and Devils Lake square off at 5 p.m. and Fargo Davies, 18-5, meets Legacy, 17-7, at 7 p.m.