The home bleachers of the Vermillion High School gymnasium were filled Sunday night with over 200 fans of the Vermillion Tanager girls' basketball team.

They didn't gather to see the Tanagers' usual brand of exciting competition.

Fellow high school students and townsfolk of all ages came simply to say thank you for a season that will go down in the annals of Tanager athletic history.

Last weekend, the fifth-rated Tanagers proved the naysayers were wrong.

The squad's strong play Thursday, along with a heart-stopping victory Friday night set up a match between Vermillion and the Bennett County Boosters Saturday night for the championship.

The Tanagers were victorious, defeating the Boosters 56-48 to claim the first state girls' basketball title in Vermillion High School history.

Vermillion High School Athletic Director Jason Huska told the crowd the long ride home from Spearfish Sunday gave him plenty of time to reflect on the fantastic experiences of the Tanagers during the three-day tournament.

"This is probably one of the more exciting tournaments in history," he said. "There was pure excitement in every game, and I tell you what, it's a tribute to these girls, their hard work, and how very, very proud we are of them."

Last weekend represented the Vermillion girls' third consecutive trip to the State A Tournament. The team's past experience in a tournament setting, Huska said, showed.

"They were able to keep their composure, and that really, really helped them out. This is not something you can do by yourself; it's something that requires the entire team, and this group really showed that."

Saturday's 56-48 championship win over Bennett County came down the wire. However, the Tanagers' win in the finals was almost anti-climactic compared to the 72-70 heartstopper over top-seeded Milbank, already proclaimed one of the best state tournament games ever played in South Dakota.

Huska said the Tanagers' three victories in the tournament are a tribute to head coach Jamie Parish.

"Jamie did an outstanding job preparing these kids to go out and be successful," he said. "The championship is a tribute to him and his staff."

Parish, in turn, unselfishly credited nearly everyone but himself – ranging from student managers and a high-energy group of student fans, to the girls' parents, the coaching staff and their athletic trainer – for the Tanagers' success.

And, naturally, the athletes themselves who, he said, simply shined on the court in Spearfish.

The people who ranked the Tanagers fifth in the tournament, Parish said, obviously didn't pay close attention to the girls' regular schedule.

They opened the season with a come-from-behind win over Harrisburg. In their match with Dell Rapids, they again found themselves lagging behind. But, Parish said, the team never gave up. They kept chipping away at Dells' lead, and won the game by eight points.

The Tanagers' ability to dig down deep was perhaps never more evident than in the Milbank game. With just seconds remaining and the score tied at 70, Alicia Brown's shot was blocked. Milbank came down with the ball, but Annie Roche back tipped it. Chelsea Gauer knocked the loose ball back to Roche, who moved upcourt and found a waiting Brown, who nailed the winning shot at the buzzer.

Roche caught up with Wollschlager, tipping the ball backwards toward Vermillion's Chelsea Gauer, who tipped it back to Roche for a sprint back to the Tanager basket.

"I got it to Alicia because I knew she would make the tip-in," Roche said.

Parish admitted the play was one the Tanagers practiced all season.

"Against Milbank, we tried to run the play where we looked at Annie Roche for a back-door play. If that didn't work, we wanted to get it to Alicia Brown to flatten out the defense," Parish said. "When Milbank blocked the shot, we went for the 'back-tip,' and Annie Roche executed it to perfection."

The Tanagers defeated fourth-seeded Cheyenne-Eagle Butte 52-47 in the tourney opener, rallying from a first-quarter deficit.

Against Bennett County, the Tanagers clamped down on their explosive opponents, Parish told the home crowd Sunday. Bennett County entered the state tourney ranked second in the final poll, knocking off top-ranked Pine Ridge in the district tourney.

"Bennett County was scoring more than 70 points a game, and our kids shut them down," Parish said. "That was (Bennett County's) lowest scoring all season."

At half-time of the State "A" championship game, Roche won the "Spirit of Su" award for her outstanding record as a student and for her conduct both on and off the court. Roche and Brown were also named to the All-Tournament Team.

But the greatest tribute may have come in the final minute of the championship game, when Parish asked the team to make it possible for Roche to set the new VHS girls' basketball scoring record.

"Annie needed two points, and the rest of the team was more excited about it than Annie," Parish said.

Assistant Coach Nick Mayer, in his first year with the Tanagers, expressed his appreciation to Parish and the team.

"I am so proud and honored to be part of this," Mayer said.

Assistant Coach Lori Jerred thanked Parish for her return to coaching and making her part of the varsity experience. "I had the time of my life. These are the best memories," she said.

The Yankton P&D contributed to this story.

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