"State was our goal. It was our dream," Beth Szymonski of the Vermillion Tanagers said early this week as her team prepared to head to Spearfish for the state Class "A" basketball tournament. "To have met that goal is the greatest feeling, but we hope to exceed it by playing our best."
Vermillion, the No. 7 seed, was slated to open state tourney play at 7 p.m. (CST) last night (Thursday) against No. 2 seed Miller. The Tanagers' Friday opponent will be No. 3 seed Sisseton or No. 6 seed Parkston.
"Ever since eighth grade my class has talked about how we were going to state our senior year," Val Robinson said. "We've worked so hard through the years, and now it's happening. It's surreal!"
The fact that the Tanagers with a sparkling 18-4 record are the seventh seed among eight teams says volumes about the caliber of Class "A" girls basketball this year. The "worst" record among the state tourney teams – as if calling it "worst" is even fair – is No. 8 Pine Ridge's 17-5.
The eight tournament teams have a combined record of 156-24. Three have lost only twice, and three others have lost only three games.
"We will have to play three of our best games of the year in a row," Coach Nick Mayer said last weekend. "Hopefully our practices will have prepared us for the grueling three days."
Defending champion Sisseton (21-2) lost only to Class "B" Northwestern and to Aberdeen Roncalli but avenged the Roncalli loss in fine style with a 16-point win in the regional finals. Last year's third-place team, Clark-Willow Lake (19-3) lost only to Sisseton, Roncalli and Elkton-Lake Benton, which is also in the tournament. Also returning is last year's fourth-place St. Thomas More, the No. 1 seed at 21-2, with losses only to top-ranked Wagner and Chadron, Neb.
Elkton-Lake Benton (20-3) lost only to Class "B" Summit, Estelline and Castlewood, two of whom are in the "B" tourney this week. Parkston (20-3), who knocked out Wagner in their district finals, lost only to Elkton-Lake Benton, St. Thomas More and Wagner. Pine Ridge's five defeats came at the hands of Red Cloud, Winner, White River, Spearfish and Cheyenne-Eagle Butte, four of the five losses by a total of 13 points.
The Miller team which Vermillion had to face first came into the tournament at 20-2. The Rustlers' only two losses came back-to-back in early January to Redfield-Doland and Sully Buttes, the latter of whom is in the "B" tournament. Miller then proceeded to win 13 games in a row. It is the first state tourney trip for Miller since 1993 but the school's sixth overall.
Vermillion, too, is making its sixth trip to state in school history, and it is the sixth time 12 seasons the Tanagers have qualified. VHS was second in 2000, returned in 2001, placed third in 2005, went back again in 2006 and won it all at Spearfish in 2007.
Kelly Amundson explained what going to state means to her and her team. "The whole team has put in a lot of hard work over the years and over the summers," she said. "Making it to state makes all the extra practice worth it." She said the Tanagers' biggest strength is their teamwork and that "every one of us is a threat!"
Szymonski echoed those sentiments, adding, "We play so well together, selfless and cohesively. We trust each other and believe in the team and our potential.
She said the girls "push one another to be better" in practices. "Every day we are getting better, stronger and smarter as individual players and as a team. We love the game, but we love our teammates just as much. We are going to make the most of our last minutes on the court together."
Robinson, one of five Tanager seniors along with Szymonski, Amundson, Bailey Carlson and Lexi Regnerus, concurred that teamwork and communication are the team's finest points. "We would give up our lower-percentage shot to give our teammate a high-percentage shot," she said. "We communicate so well. On the court you hear all five players talking. Even on the bench you hear the rest of the team talking and encouraging. It is so awesome to have a team that is confident in you!"
Regnerus noted that, going into this year, "we knew that it was our last chance to do something special and end the season in Spearfish, so we kind of buckled down and got the job done, I guess." She said she and her mates know each of them has her own role on the team and "we each play that role to the best of our ability for the good of the team."
The concept of teamwork that the Tanagers have grasped was also stressed by Mackenzie Huber. "On any given night anyone could have the top score, and each of us is happy to have the assist or screen." She said there is no pettiness, "and we have little drama for a group of girls who spend so much time together!"
Echoing her community's sentiments, Josie Huber said this is an opportunity "we will cherish for a long time. I love this team and everyone on it!"