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Entering this season, Maple Valley High School girls basketball coach Jeff Miller was cautiously optimistic.
"I knew we'd be better than last year and I knew we'd be able to surprise some teams," Miller said. "I thought we would maybe get off to a slower start and then start picking it up at the end of the year once they started playing together."
But after beating Griggs County Central 54-31 Tuesday, "better than last year" is a goal the team has already achieved.
Tuesday's win tied last year's season total and last weekend's 41-40 win against Richland was the team's first against a Class B District 2 opponent in three years.
Not bad for a team comprised of an 8th grader, four freshman, a sophomore, one junior and a senior.
The key to the early success is simple, the Raiders are getting points from all over the court.
"In the past we've always had one or two people who have really taken over the scoring, but this year everybody's stepping in and scoring some points," Miller said.
Among those scoring points is eighth grade phenom Rylee Nudell, the team's scoring leader last year. In the four games, the 5' 10" forward has scored 67 points including two 22 point games with a combination of post play and shots from the floor.
"She can do everything. It's a huge asset to have someone like her on our team," said Miller.
But Nudell isn't alone.
Cassie Pautz, the lone junior on the team, has scored ten or more points in three of the four games, including a team high 15 against Richland and 16 against Litchville-Marion/Montpelier.
Point guard Abbie Tinjum also contributes. She scored a season high 12 points against Sargent Central and otherwise has scored between five and seven points a game.
"That's what's encouraging about this year is that when maybe one person doesn't have the best offensive game, we have a couple of people that step up and take over," Miller said.
The Raiders have even made their presence felt in the paint with consistent play from senior center Staci Hovland, who scored 19 points in the first three games despite it being her first time getting varsity play.
"She's gotten in her head a little tough attitude," Miller said. "She just sits down there, gets the offensive rebounds and puts them right back in, gets passes at the free throw line against a zone and knocks down that shot. She's being a lot more aggressive this year."
Defensively, the team has also implemented a 2-3 zone, which has worked well so far, Miller said.
The early results of the balance have the team feeling optimistic.
"It's a lot different than last year," Tinjum said. "I think it's a lot better because instead of only a few people scoring, everybody that's playing is getting a fair amount of points."
That's not to say the improvement just happened overnight, but rather over the summer when the team played along other high school teams in a league at Fargo's Courts Plus Fitness Center.
In the league, the Raiders faced off against teams other schools including Lisbon, Kindred, Fargo Shanley and Fargo South.
The Raiders finished second in the league's Silver Division tournament and Nudell was named league MVP.
"We all worked together and I think that helped us a lot with how we play together and everything," Tinjum said. "It made us a lot better."
While the team has been off to a good start, Miller is expecting teams to notice.
"I don't know if we're going to be able to surprise many more teams now," he said. "You can only fly under the radar for so long."
When the season resumes Jan. 3, it will be at home against Valley City, and the rest of the season will be chock full of District 2 competition. The same district the team has finished last in the past two years.
Even the 41-40 district opening win against Richland was competitive and forced the team to come back from small deficits throughout the game.
"We put in a little half-court trap at the end of the game and we ended up ahead," Miller said.
With the strong start, though, Miller is optimistic the team can finish in the top four spots in the district, even if the girls struggle against some of the competition.
"Obviously Central Cass is at the top and we're not at that level yet. They have too many players," Miller said. "Who knows? Towards the end of the year, we'll see how good these young girls can get because the more they play together, the better they're going to be."
But for now, the girls are just enjoying it.
"It feels good to start winning because I know we deserve it," Tinjum said. "We've been working really hard and I like it."