Outside of the Chaska girls' basketball team and its supporters, there were likely few who believed it was possible.
The Hawks had put together a terrific season, to be sure. Undefeated, with talent up and down the lineup and veterans to lean on when things got snug. The team, after enduring a two-week pause caused by a COVID-19 exposure late in the regular season, reached the Class 4A state tournament semifinals, a sure indicator that Chaska was no run-of-the-mill bunch.
But their opponent was not just another team. This was Hopkins, which hadn't lost a game since 2018, amassing 78 consecutive victories. One more and the state record for consecutive wins would be the Royals' alone. Their lineup — a who's who of top girls' basketball talent — appeared unbeatable.
They were not. Not on April 7, at least.
Playing efficiently and boldly at Target Center, the plucky Hawks matched Hopkins stride for stride, shot for shot, pass for pass. They never backed down, becoming one of the few teams to go right at Hopkins, something the Royals weren't accustomed to.
Chaska took a seven-point halftime lead, bumped it up to 13 early in the second half and held on for a 67-62 victory. Junior forward Mallory Heyer had 24 points. Sophomore point guard Kennedy Sanders, cool under pressure, had 21 and senior leader Kaylee Van Eps added 13.
Most important, the Hawks, the Star Tribune All-Metro Girls' Team of the Year, had faced down a mystique. Hopkins wasn't invincible after all.
"The whole year, we had been doing so well, but we were on the opposite end. We were like underdogs," Van Eps said. "That gave us a ton of motivation because this was our chance to show people what we're made of."
Defeating Hopkins, as special as it was, was only part of the story. Chaska still had the state championship game against Rosemount to go. After such an emotional victory, the Hawks needed to bounce back quickly and finish what they started.
"If I'm being honest, I was really worried," coach Tara Seifert said. "We were on such a high after winning that huge game. We had one day to practice and realize this was a totally different team we were playing with a different mind-set. It was going to be a grind."
The final was exactly that, a tightly contested game that came down to the final seconds. Van Eps scored the game-winning basket for Chaska with 5.7 seconds left to give the Hawks a 45-43 victory and the state championship — the program's first — to cap an 18-0 season.
"It's a moment in my life that I've always dreamed of and it finally came true," Van Eps said. "There's nothing better."
After years of coaching these players and watching them develop, seeing them achieve the ultimate goal "was such a proud moment," Seifert said.
"I've been head of the program for 14 years and I've known them since they were in third and fourth grade, starting basketball. For them to achieve a goal like that is really special."
Chaska basketball roster, 2021 season
Kaylee Van Eps