NEW ULM - Though basketball remained very much at the center of the portrait on Monday as the New Ulm girls' basketball team took on Waseca, the entire evening was framed by a very successful first annual Shoot for the Cure event for the Eagles.
On the court, the Bluejays took care of business with a 63-32 victory to seal the South Central Conference title. Off the court, both of the teams and the fans in attendance took the time to acknowledge how close to home the issue of cancer is to the community, with a number of events aimed as raising funds to be donated to New Ulm Medical Center to help fight the disease.
"It meant a lot to a lot of us, because pretty much all of us have people in our lives that have either survived cancer or died of cancer," New Ulm senior Alex Welsh said. "It kind of hits home for most of our girls."
The impact that cancer has had in the lives of the New Ulm players was vividly demonstrated when each player and team manager handed a rose to a family member that had been affected by cancer prior to the beginning of the game. Welsh gave her rose to her father, but mentioned that both her mother and grandparents have also been impacted by the disease.
The roses were donated by A to Zinnea.
The event was the second installment in a two-part cancer fundraiser series between the two teams, with the Bluejays having hosted a Coaches vs. Cancer event when they hosted the Eagles on Jan. 31.
"It is kind of weird - Waseca and New Ulm have been rivals for a long time, but it feels good to get in on something," Welsh said of combining with the Bluejays for the series. "They share the same compassion as we do, so it's nice to have another team there to do it with us."
Monday's event saw the fruition of planning that the Eagles players and greater Eagles community had been hard at work at since the beginning of the season.
"It was very nice, I thought it went really well," New Ulm head coach Matthew Dick said. "A lot of people stepped up and did a nice job. The parents did a great job, the kids did a great job, it was just a really nice event I think. I think we raised enough money to make a nice donation and raise some awareness.
"I think it was just really nice to see some girls step up and take leadership roles in it," Dick added. "Some of them weren't even ones that were asked, they just said, 'I'll do this, I'll do this,' and that was really kind of cool as a coach for me to see. And everybody just stepping up as a community and supporting it was fun to see."
Before Monday's game had even begun, the event had kicked off with a "Wall of Hope," which people could purchase cards to place on with names of loved ones affected by cancer. The team had also completed a raffle for a "Best Seat in the House" contest, which was won by some New Ulm middle school students that sat on a comfy couch behind one of the baselines during the game.
In the foyer there was a silent auction for a number of donated gift baskets that drew a lot of interest.
Both teams warmed up in pink shooting shirts, with the Eagles also adding subtle touches such as pink shoelaces, socks and headbands. The theme of pink was also splattered throughout the crowd.
"It actually feels really good, seeing all the pink out there," Welsh said. "We went on the radio show and said to wear pink, and a lot of people actually pulled through with it. A lot of people came and enjoyed the events, we sold a lot of [halftime shot competition] balls, so that was really good. Our girls got to enjoy the 'Best Seat in the House,' so that was good, too. I think it went really well."
The game itself had a thrilling start, with Taylor Bolduan pacing New Ulm's early efforts with a pair of 3-pointers to have the Eagles trailing 12-8 six minutes into the contest. However, Waseca put together a 26-4 run to end the half and took a comfortable 38-12 lead into the break.
At halftime the crowd was brought to life with half-court and 3-point shooting competitions, which lasted almost throughout halftime and created a lot of energy for the fundraising efforts. At the beginning of halftime there were donation buckets passed throughout the crowd for 76 seconds, which is how often someone dies of cancer.
Nicole Dittrich and Hunter Ahlness provided a spark for the Eagles in the second half with a barrage of 3-pointers early in the half (one by Dittrich and two by Ahlness), but Waseca never led by fewer than 27 points in the half.
"I think we played hard and came out and did our best," Welsh said. "It was fun overall doing the fundraising."
Dittrich led the Eagles with seven points, with Bolduan and Ahlness each contributing six points. Ellie Schneider and Briana Sieve had four points, Molly Shaul and Kelsey Anderson added two points apiece and Lizzie Rummel contributed one point.
The Bluejays were led by Mikayla Rolling and Caitlyn Hayford with 12 points apiece. Katie Miller had 10 points and Katie Tlusty and Jordyn Hedberg added nine points each.
Waseca's path to the SCC title included much adversity, including three overtime victories, two of them against state-ranked St. Peter.
"We won this past Friday night against St. Peter in overtime, so that put us in the situation with the chance to clinch it tonight," Waseca head coach Joan Conway said. "It's a big deal, it's only the fourth time in this program's history it's happened (winning the conference title), so it's a very big deal for these kids. I'm just as pleased as can be, because they went through a lot of adversity to get it."
Waseca (15-8, 9-1) will next play Friday at home against Byron.
New Ulm (0-19, 0-10) will play at Mankato West on Thursday.
Welsh admitted that the team didn't know how much success to expect with Monday's Shoot for the Cure event, but after having such success with their first try, the Eagles are definitely aiming to continue to improve the event for future years.
"I definitely think it's going to be an annual thing now," Welsh said. "This year was our first kind of experimental year and it went so well, so I think they're going to make it a yearly thing."