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Jeff Kolpack, Published February 24 2013

Unbeaten Otters girls basketball team reaching new heights

Fargo - Fergus Falls, Minn., is less than 25 miles from Pelican Rapids. For Brad Strand, that’s about the biggest change in his head coaching career – and that includes going from the Vikings boys to Otters girls.

Basketball is basketball. And in Fergus these days, times are good with an enthusiastic following, an unbeaten team and a father-daughter combination that has Brad and Bailey Strand enjoying the ride. The coach speaks of more “greats” than Tony the Tiger.

“I’m loving it, absolutely loving it,” he said. “Great kids. Great coaches. Great system. Great administrators. Great support.”

Last week, the Fergus following comprised about half the gymnasium in a key road win at Staples. On Saturday, the Otters took a trip to Moorhead High School and gave a lesson in explosiveness.

Tied at 23-23 just over midway through the first half, Fergus scored 18 straight points in a quick, orderly fashion. That was all she wrote in a 91-55 victory that improved the Otters to 26-0 – with the closest win five points against Detroit Lakes.

Otherwise, the schedule is mostly littered with lopsided victories. The Otters have been ranked No. 1 in Minnesota Class 3A all season.

That despite losing three college-level players from last year. Forward Mariah Monke is at Division I Wisconsin-Green Bay, guard Sydney Schultz has started 16 games at Bethel (Minn.) and Haylie Zenner is running track at the University of Minnesota.

Bailey Strand has helped fill the void. The 5-foot-10 smooth-shooting left-handed junior guard had 27 points against the Spuds and is leading the team in scoring averaging 20 points and 4 assists. The season, however, is more about points and assists for both player and coach.

Now that they’re on the same team, family time in the winter has more quality to it.

“We have supper together, we ride to school together, we ride the bus together,” Brad Strand said. “In the past, that was disjointed. It’s a huge, free benefit for me.”

Said Bailey: “We can actually see each other in the winter.”

There were times in the past when Bailey would hang out at Brad’s Pelican Rapids practices. But the relationship is different now that’s she’s playing for her father.

Before he accepted the Fergus job, Brad said he did some research.

“I talked to a lot of people who coached their own boy or girl,” he said. “I got a lot of feedback before making my decision. The positives outweighed the negatives. There have been times when I’ve been frustrated and I’ve taken it out, not at her, but in her direction, but I know she can handle it. But it also hasn’t happened much.”

Not when your team is unbeaten, one of only two remaining in all of Minnesota girls basketball. Braham is the other.

There doesn’t appear to be many losses on the horizon, for at least another year, either. Center Hanna Swenson, whose father Chad Swenson played at Wahpeton and the University of North Dakota, is the lone senior starter. She’s averaging a double-double – 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Junior Brianna Rasmussen, a 6-foot junior guard who plays the game at a high pace, averages 16 points and 7 assists. Rasmussen, Swenson and Strand used to play on the same AAU team coached by Brad Strand in the summer so it’s not like it was a totally new situation.

“I knew she could play and I knew he’s a good coach,” Rasmussen said. “She’s an all-around player who can do a lot of things.”

The same could be said for several Otters players. The team discussion is never about the record, Brad Strand says. That’s another Pelican Rapids-ism. “The goal is not to go undefeated,” he said. “The goal is to get better.”

The flat top is maybe not as pronounced as it once was, but the style of play is the same. The Otters girls are running the same stuff the Vikings boys did. The defenses are the same.

The winning ways are the same.

Starting, today, however, the focus is on the playoffs.

“Now it’s the second season and that’s what people remember,” Brad said. “We’ll come back (today) and everybody is zero and zero.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia