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Byron girls basketball team looking like the real deal

Jan. 19—Editor's note: This High School Girls Basketball Focus was written prior to Thursday's games.

It's not lost on Ben Pollock the sweet spot that he has inherited.

The 32-year-old Pollock, a Hayfield native, is the first-year coach of the Byron girls basketball team. Prior to taking the head job, he was a four-year assistant to Jeremy Baumbach, who stepped down at the close of last season.

Byron is currently sitting with one of its best teams ever. The Bears, who lean heavily on their ball-hawking defense and speed, are ranked eighth in Class 3A and are 11-2. They are skilled, athletic, deep, together and under the tutelage of a heck of a coaching staff.

Sitting next to Pollock are a couple of former longtime head basketball coaches, Joe Ohm and Aaron Berg. Ohm spent a bunch of seasons as Century's boys head coach, while Berg directed the Century girls and then the Lourdes girls, taking the Eagles to three state tournaments. Also on the staff is Mike Matti, Pollock's uncle and another longtime basketball guy.

"There isn't a situation that I can run by those guys for an idea that they haven't experienced before," Pollock said.

Pollock has a deep appreciation for all three of those coaches. He also is indebted to that guy he used to assist, Baumbach.

"Jason and I are close friends and he's made the transition (to head coach) easy for me," Pollock said. "He says, 'Here is how you do this and here is how you do that.' "

The Byron staff has excellent talent on the team to mold. That includes Ohm's daughter, Madison Ohm. The Ohm family moved from Rochester to Byron this past year, landing Madison in the Byron school district. A 5-foot-10 sophomore guard/forward, Ohm was a tough one for Century to lose where she'd already been a starter.

But she's been a jackpot for Byron, as one of its best shooters, ballhandlers, rebounders and defenders. Ohm is averaging 14 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2 steals per game.

And as a person, the affable sophomore has been an ideal fit.

"Madison is the nicest person," Pollock said. "This summer, she got her feet wet with us. The transition was seamless. All of our girls were instantly friends with her and hanging out. The other thing about her is that she's a gym rat. She is always in the gym, working on her game."

As familiar as Ohm is with gymnasiums, nobody beats Byron's top player in that category, fellow junior Kendra Harvey.

Harvey, who averages a team-high four steals per game, is also one of the most prolific scorers ever at Byron (averaging 17 points this season), and she comes complete with a massive competitive edge.

"Kendra is in the gym all the time," Pollock said. "And as soon as practice is over with, she wants to play me one on one. Kendra is the most competitive person I've ever come across. She is the nicest person, but (in basketball) she is incredibly intense."

One of the things that Pollock appreciates most about this team is its senior leadership. He's got four seniors on the roster, starters Paige Halder and Lexi Nelson, as well as reserves Rylee Finney and Gabby Cornejo.

"I love this senior group," Pollock said. "They all get along so well off the court and that bleeds onto the court. They are always asking me about extra things they can do, like we made Christmas stockings for the residents at (senior living community ) Madonna Summit and sang Christmas carols there. Their willingness to serve has been great."

Halder, one of the top all-around athletes in the state (basketball, track and field, soccer), is a quiet leader who doesn't play quietly on the defensive end. The speedy and angular Halder heads a Byron defense that is fast, aggressive and full of traps. Halder averages nearly four steals per game.

The real hub of the team is Nelson, also an All-State volleyball player. She is the team's resident "mother."

"Lexi brings (energy) every single night," Pollock said. "And she is our biggest one for keeping this team together, organizing Friday night suppers at her house, sending texts to her teammates and being our vocal leader. Plus, she anchors our team on the glass (averaging six rebounds per game) and scores in double figures most nights. We go as she goes."

Right now, Byron has a team that has a great shot at reaching the state tournament. The Bears began their season with a narrow win over Section 1, Class 3A's other likely top team, Stewartville. They also recently took down another top Section1-3A team, Winona.

Laynie Meister, John Marshall

It had been a disappointing short stretch of games for resurgent John Marshall. But Meister did her part on Jan. 11 to get the Rockets going again as she scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against No. 12-ranked Winona. That helped result in a 53-47 JM win.

Kinley Soiney, Spring Grove

A sophomore forward, Soiney continued with her excellent season on Monday, scoring 21 points, hitting four 3-pointers and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Lions' 65-44 win over Houston. Soiney is already a 1,000-point scorer.

Lauren Hust, Lourdes

Athletic 5-11 sophomore forward Hust has been a major factor all season for Lourdes and has been a breakthrough scorer. Against Fairmont on Jan. 13, Hust scored 22 points on 10-for-18 field-goal shooting and hit both of her free throws. She also grabbed nine rebounds, played lock-down defense and had three steals. Lourdes is on a roll, winner of nine straight heading into its showdown game with superb Byron on Thursday.

Tayler Helgemoe, Rushford-Peterson

Rushford-Peterson pulled off a 57-49 upset win over previously No. 8-ranked Dover-Eyota on Jan. 11 and Helgemoe had a lot to do with it. The senior forward scored 21 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 4 steals and 3 blocked shots. Ellie Ekern also has a huge role with 21 points and five rebounds.

Amelia Mills, Mayo

It's been a quite couple of weeks for Mayo, with lopsided wins over city rivals John Marshall and Century, as well as a win over the Big Nine's second-place team, Mankato East. First-place Mayo got 26 points (11-for-15 field-goal shooting), 5 steals and 5 assists from eighth-grade budding star guard Amelia Mills in that Jan. 9 win over East.

Elisabeth Gadient, Goodhue

As she so often does, 5-foot-11 senior guard Gadient filled up the stat sheet on Tuesday in an impressive 75-53 win previously No. 8-ranked Dover-Eyota. The senior guard finished with 23 points, five 3-pointers and seven rebounds.

(Editor's note: These rankings are considered "pound-for-pound" rankings, similar to many rankings systems in boxing and mixed martial arts. They represent the best teams in southeastern Minnesota, relative to the class they play in.

1. Goodhue (13-3)

It's been quite a stretch for Goodhue, which is No. 1 not only in this ranking, but No. 1 in state Class 1A. The Wildcats have strung together 10 straight wins. That includes beating state-ranked teams Mountain Iron-Buhl, Crosby-Ironton, Byron and Dover-Eyota.

2. Mayo (12-2)

The Spartans make a large jump in these Power Rankings, from seventh to second. Mayo has earned it with eight straight wins, including hammering city rivals and solid teams Century and then John Marshall. Mayo has so many effective players. That includes having arguably the best backcourt in the Big Nine Conference (Kaia Kirkeby and Amelia Mills) and the best center (Ava Miller). Mayo is ranked 19th in Class 4A.

3. Byron (11-2)

The Bears, one of the top defensive teams in southeastern Minnesota (allowing 44 points per game), are sizzling. They've won eight of their past nine games, the lone loss 46-45 to No. 1-ranked (Class 1A) Goodhue. Byron is balanced, it can shoot and it's fast.

4. Winona Cotter (12-2)

The No. 9-ranked Ramblers (Class 2A) had a statement win on Jan. 13 when they beat No. 6-ranked Hayfield (Class 1A) 74-68. Forward Clarissa Sauer is one of the top five players in southeastern Minnesota. The speedy and strong junior can score, defend and rebound, and she's unselfish. She is also getting plenty of help from the starting backcourt of Abby Williams and Katelyn Ubl.

5. Lourdes (10-3)

There aren't many teams hotter than Lourdes. The Eagles have won nine straight. But things are about to get a lot tougher, with games at No. 9-ranked Byron (Class 3A) on Thursday and against 10-4 Caledonia on Saturday in the HVL/TRC Showdown at Mayo Civic Center.

6. Hayfield (16-2)

Just two losses for the No. 6-ranked Vikings (to No. 9-ranked Winona Cotter from Class 2A and No. 5-ranked Sleepy Eye from Class 1A), but no head-turning wins for the Vikings. Hayfield has two stars, guard Kristen Watson and forward Natalie Beaver. But the Vikings are much more than that, with Chelsea Christopherson and Betsy Gillette also with plenty of game.

7. Stewartville (10-6)

Nobody in southeastern Minnesota has a more deceiving record than 10-6 Stewartville. That's because the Tigers have played a gauntlet of a schedule. That includes a 70-60 win over No. 1-ranked Goodhue (Class 1A). It also includes losses to No. 8 Byron (Class 3A), No. 4 Alexandria (Class 3A), No. 1 Minnetonka (Class 4A), No. 1 Providence Academy (Class 2A) and No. 2 Benilde-St. Margaret's (Class 3A). Stewartville is also in Class 3A and is ranked 14th.

8. Caledonia (10-4)

Two weeks ago the No. 13-ranked Warriors (Class 2A) lost to Dover-Eyota 63-57. Then on Monday, they turned the tables on D-E, winning 66-50. Aubrey Klug had 18 points in that one, Nicole Banse 13, Josie Foster 12 and Kensey King 10. This is a talented and balanced group.

9. Dover-Eyota (14-4)

D-E was fantastic out of the gate, winning its first 11 games. But the Eagles have experienced tougher times recently, with losses in each of their last three games (to Rushford-Peterson, Caledonia and Goodhue). Caledonia and Goodhue are two of the toughest teams in southeastern Minnesota.

10. Spring Grove (12-2)

The Lions' most impressive showing might have come in a loss, just 60-52 to No. 6-ranked Hayfield. Spring Grove has a true star in 5-11 sophomore Kinley Soiney, who can beat teams offensively inside and outside. She's already scored 1,000 points in her career and recently had a 21-points, 10-rebounds game.