In some ways, it hasn't been a typical year for St. Thomas More girls' basketball.
In one of the most important ways, it has, as the Cavaliers have a chance to compete for their sixth straight Class A state title this weekend in Sioux Falls.
St. Thomas More, 18-5 and the No. 4 seed, opens the tournament Thursday at 4 p.m. against No. 5 seed Lennox, 19-3.
STM has been dealt some adversity on the injury front this season. Senior leader Alex Kandolin injured her knee and was lost for the season before the first game, and starting guard Skylar Sullivan also missed time with an ankle injury.
The Cavaliers also graduated Klaire Kirsch, Aislinn Duffy and Jayden Bies from last year's state title team. The injuries and graduations left STM without a lot of experience on its roster.
And yet, with a 58-45 win over Flandreau in the SoDak 16 the Cavaliers advanced to their sixth straight state tournament.
"I’m very, very proud of the girls to stay composed and show the desire and dedication to make it back to the state tournament," STM coach Brandon Kandolin. "Through that adversity I saw the progression of us getting better and better each day."
The progression came to a head in the last regular season game of the season, when the Cavs downed the No. 4 seed in the Class AA state tournament Brandon Valley on the road 66-58.
During the Hanson Classic Jan. 12 at the Corn Palace, the Cavs fell to the Lennox 61-57 in overtime.
"At the time we were still trying to put pieces together without Alex, and it was the first weekend Skylar was back from her ankle injury, so we finally got a little more depth, but we were still trying to figure out the pieces," Kandolin said.
Kandolin highlighted 6-foot, 1-inch Madysen Viastuin, who is averaging 16.5 points per game this season, as well as guards Rianna Fillipi (13.2 points per game) and Riley Peters (12.5 points per game).
Although the Cavaliers might not have as much state tournament experience as they have in the past, their leading scorer saw important minutes during last season's tournament.
Haleigh Timmer is averaging 21.1 points per game this season to go along with 7.4 rebounds. But Kandolin said the schedule the Cavs play, which included the Hanson Classic and multiple trips to the eastern side of the state, can prepare those who haven't been a part of the state tournament for the bright lights and big stage.
"They understand the focus that’s going to have to take place the next four days ... they know what’s expected, they know that it’s still basketball," he said. "I think we have been fortunate to have been in those situations, and at the same time, the schedule that we play, always in a different venue, it seems like we show up in different places and it’s always a huge crowd."
And no matter what, after five straight championships, when a player puts on the STM uniform, Kandolin said there's an eye on every game the Cavaliers play.
"Everyone wants to come out and see St. Thomas More play, and I think the opposing crowds want to see if there’s going to be that upset," he said. "For our girls, it’s not going to be anything real different, it’s going to be a matter of focus in those next four days."
Todd County going in as No. 3 seed
The third seed hasn't been in the tournament since 2005, but Todd County has come close in the past.
"It feels awesome. We've come so close for so many years. We've played in SoDak16's and multiple region championships, but we weren't quite good enough to get to state," Todd County coach Bob Boyd Jr. said. "The girls have put in a lot of hard work to get where they are now and have matured, so it's great that it has paid off."
The 21-2 Falcons will face No. 6 seeded McCook Central/Montrose, which is 18-4 and finished fourth in the state tournament last season.
Todd County is led in scoring by guards Raven Cournoyer (23.7 points per game) and Kelsie Herman (20 points per game), Cournoyer also leads the team in assists at 6.1 per game and led in rebounds by Haylee Quick Bear who is averaging 8.7 per game.
MCM is led by Madison Koepsell with 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and Abigail Van Ruler, who is averaging 11.3 and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Todd County, which took home the girls' Lakota Nation Invitational championship in December, has not faced MCM this season, but Boyd said the Falcons just need to be calm and focused to do what will be required to come out on top.
"First, we need to play our game, up tempo with pressure defense. Secondly, we need to shoot the ball well," he said. "We have to find a way to negate our obvious size disadvantage and you do that by pressuring the opponents' guards and making their bigs run up and down the floor. That is what has made us successful all year and we need to keep doing it."
The Falcons and the Fighting Cougars will face off at 4 p.m.
The winner of that game will face either No. 2 seed Winner or No. 7 seed Aberdeen Roncalli.
Winner looks to stay unbeaten
The Warriors are 21-0 on the season and are led in scoring and rebounding by freshman Bella Swedlund, who is averaging 16.2 and 5.9 rebounds per game.
"It's an awesome feeling, I'm very proud of the girls," Winner coach Larry Aaker said. "They have worked extremely hard for this, but we are not just satisfied with making the state tournament."
Winner has not faced Roncalli this season, which is led in scoring and rebounding by Mariah Winegar, who is averaging 14.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
"It comes down to doing the little things. Rebounding, taking care of the ball, shooting the ball well and obviously defending," Aaker said. "We feel like if we can do all of those things well, we have a shot, plus we have to continue to play together as a a team."
Winner and Roncalli face off at noon Thursday.