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For the Mandan Braves, odd ending to a season of winning
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For the Mandan Braves, odd ending to a season of winning

Instead of preparing for placement games at the Class A state tournament in Fargo, Mandan basketball coaches Brandon Schafer and Abby Thomas were packing up and heading home on March 13.

Both Braves teams got their games in before the North Dakota High School Activities Association canceled the remainder of the "Super A" in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Mandan's girls lost to Fargo Shanley in a semifinal game, while the boys defeated Shanley to earn a spot in the fifth-place game. 

The unprecedented nature of the decision to cancel the Class A tournament was not lost on either coach. But as coaches and teachers do, they tried to use the situation as a learning moment.

"One of the many great things about sports is that it prepares you for life," Thomas said. "Sometimes things happen that are completely out of your control, things that might make you sad or disappointed and for our players and our coaching staff, this is one of those times.

"We wanted to play tomorrow. We weren't ready for the season to be over, but you try to teach kids that these things happen in life sometimes. We have great kids, they're disappointed of course, but they understand this is one of those situations where it's just out of our control."

Schafer and the Mandan boys team were together for a meal when they got the call from AD Mark Wiest. The Braves had defeated Shanley 50-45 on Friday after a hard-fought quarterfinal loss to Fargo Davies on Thursday.

"The kids were kind of in shock. They didn't believe us right away," Schafer said. "You have conflicting emotions for sure. We were excited because we thought we'd get to have one more day together as a team and we were really excited about that. At the same time, this is such a special group of young men and for them to be able to win their final game together, not many teams can say that. We had hoped that would happen on Saturday, but as it turns out, it ended up being today."

It was a successful season for both teams by any metric.

The Mandan girls won 17 games, the boys 16. The school produced two more Miss (Lakyn Darras) and Mr. (Elijah Klein) Basketball candidates. Both players surpassed 1,000 points. Klein approached 1,500 and finished his career as the third-leading rebounder in state history, passing the likes of Dexter Werner (857), A.J. Jacobson (836) and Brian Qvale (819) -- all three of whom went on to successful NCAA Division I careers.

"You just kind of run out of adjectives with Eli," Schafer said. "I don't think it's too much to say he's one of the best players to ever come out of this state."

Mandan's boys team had eight seniors. Jaxton Wiest, the Braves' point guard, played with a partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, which will require surgery.

"Jaxton is one tough kid," Schafer said. "The leadership he and our seniors brought to our team was outstanding. They were committed to each other and they were committed to this sport."

Some may have expected a rebuilding season for the Mandan girls. Well, they built it all the way up to a top four finish at state. Darras and junior guard Sydney Gustavsson earned all-West Region honors, while seniors Maria Moore and Aleah Clarke stepped into larger roles and succeeded. Next season, Gustavsson, Piper Harris and Amaya Ramsey, all key contributors, return.

Processing the odd ending of 2020 was the main focus on March 13, though, albeit with a little humor.

"We were talking as a team and there are tears for sure when things that are important to you come to an end, but like we said, we'll always remember the state tournament of 2020," Thomas said. "A lot of great memories but definitely a strange ending we'll remember the rest of our lives."

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

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