For Lyle-Pacelli, The Road To State Began In Nebraska

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For Lyle-Pacelli, The Road To State Began In Nebraska

Posted by John Millea( Updated 3/15/2018 8:19:21 PM

Justin Morris has added up the miles he has driven during this basketball season. The grand total is right around 23,000 miles on the road between his home in Omaha, Nebraska, and the team he coaches in southern Minnesota.

Morris has been the head coach at Lyle-Pacelli since 2012 and this will be his final season with the team, which is a cooperative effort between Lyle High School and Pacelli Catholic in Austin. When he took over, there was a group of young girls who have helped raise the profile of the Class 1A program. The Athletics made their first trip to state when the current seniors were freshmen and they returned this year, which was the hope all season long.

I wrote about Morris and the Athletics on Dec. 13, the day after they played a game in Randolph without their coach. Morris missed two other games during the season, but he will miss no more as the team closes the season at state. The top-seeded Athletics defeated Heritage Christian 59-43 in Thursday’s quarterfinals at Williams Arena and will meet Minneota on Friday at Target Center in the semifinals. (In this photo, Morris has his arms raised as the Athletics celebrate Thursday's win.)

The coach’s reason for moving from Austin to Omaha last summer sprang from an encounter after the 2015 state tournament. At a welcome home rally for the team, Morris was interviewed by a reporter from KAAL TV in Rochester. Her name is Megan Stewart; they ended up dating, are now engaged and they will be married in her hometown of Lakeville this summer. After Megan took a job at KMTV in Omaha early last year, Justin followed; he works as a senior vice president of a banking company.

In the postgame press conference Thursday, Justin opened by saying, “Last time I was here, I met my future wife. True story.”

Morris wanted to finish the story this season with the team’s three seniors: Brooke Walter, Kristi Fett and Kendal Truckenmiller. Fett, a 6-foot-5 center who has signed with Minnesota State Mankato, had a game-high 25 points and 18 rebounds Thursday.

Playing without their coach at some practices and games meant the athletes had to take more responsibility, Kristi said.

“It made us step up more. It brought us extremely close as a team because we knew that we had the responsibility, the whole team together. Most people probably think, ‘How can that work? You’re how far away and you’re the head coach?’ ”

Oh it worked.

Walter, whose father Brad is an assistant coach, said, “We’re a family here and we know what we have to do. We know when we come out and play we have to play our best every single game. We know what Justin would say, what he would do. Trust has been our big word.”

Tournament Tidbits

--Lyle-Pacelli’s Fett will be a tall order for Minneota in the semifinals, a fact acknowledged by Vikings coach Chad Johnston after his team defeated Menahga 74-69 in the quarterfinals. Minneota’s tallest player is 5-10 junior Lydia Sussner, who had 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists Thursday.

“That’s always challenging,” Johnston said of defending against a player like Fett. “Stopping her is one thing; they will just throw it up to her. Lydia will obviously give up some height. We have to figure that one out. One philosophy is to let her get her points and try to take others out of the game, but they’re very capable of hitting those shots. We’ll have to decide which route we’ll take, and we’ll sit down tonight and figure out what we’re going to do.”

--Menahga made a strong impression in the Braves’ first trip to the state tournament. Minneota was making its seventh state appearance, having won state titles in 2013 and 2014, but Menahga stayed with the Vikings to the end. Second-year Braves coach Cody Pulju said he knew playing at Williams Arena for the first time would be a challenge.

“There’s not one thing you can do to prepare them for this, and that was the result in the first half (Minneota led 41-30 at halftime). I think the environment got to us offensively in the first half, which was what we expected.”

Nevertheless, the Braves gave Minneota all they wanted in front of a great big boisterous crowd from Menahga that saw their team lose for the first time in 31 games this season. The only undefeated teams remaining are Sauk Centre (31-0) in Class 2A and Eastview (31-0) in Class 4A.

--To kick off the Class 1A quarterfinals, Heritage Christian band director Matthew Kinne stood in front of the orchestra, waved an arm to get the kids started on the national anthem, then with trumpet in hand he hopped up to the back row, joined the brass section and played along.

--Best sign in the stands: “Mya is on Fiya” in honor of Sleepy Eye senior Mya Ibberson.

--Personal note: Thursday marked my eighth anniversary doing this work for the MSHSL. It’s the best job in the world. Thanks to you all for reading these words, for putting up with my Twitter hijinks, and for saying hi when our paths cross. You are awesome.

Girls State Basketball Tournament
Thursday’s Games

Class 1A Quarterfinals
At Williams Arena
Lyle-Pacelli 59, Heritage Christian 43
Minneota 74, Menahga 69
Mountain Iron-Buhl 59, Stephen-Argyle Central 47
Sleepy Eye 53, Ada-Borup/Norman County West 51

Semifinals at Target Center

Class 3A
Cooper 65, Willmar 54
Northfield 64, Grand Rapids 54

Class 4A
Eastview 57, Lakeville North 47
Hopkins 61, Roseville 34

Friday’s Semifinals
At Target Center

Class 1A
Noon: Lyle-Pacelli vs. Minneota
2 p.m.: Mountain Iron-Buhl vs. Sleepy Eye

Class 2A
6 p.m.: Sauk Centre vs. Norwood-Young America
8 p.m.: Maranatha Christian vs. Roseau

Saturday’s Championship Games
At Target Center

Class 1A
Noon: Lyle-Pacelli or Minneota vs. Mountain Iron-Buhl vs. Sleepy Eye

Class 2A
2 p.m.: Sauk Centre or Norwood-Young America vs. Maranatha Christian or Roseau

Class 3A
6 p.m.: Cooper vs. Northfield

Class 4A
8 p.m.: Eastview vs. Hopkins