Panthers' inexperience provided challenge
Nic Lembcke knew the Park Rapids girls basketball team would be the underdog all season.
Not only did the Panthers return a roster full of players who saw little or no varsity time last season, the competition featured players who were returning as varsity veterans from successful teams.
That combination resulted in an 0-10 record in Mid-State Conference play and a 1-25 overall record for the Panthers.
Of Park Rapids' 21 opponents, six finished with at least 20 wins, 13 had winning records, 15 finished at .500 or better and 20 compiled at least 10 victories.
"Our biggest challenge going into the season was our inexperience," said Lembcke, whose team was outscored by an average of 69.4 to 29.8 points a game. "After this season, I think our players better understand what it is going to take to be successful at the varsity level."
The Panthers opened the season with losses to Menahga (73-35), Staples-Motley (83-20 in a conference game), Crosby-Ironton (78-34 in a conference game), East Grand Forks (75-18) and Pequot Lakes (93-30 in a conference game).
After opening the Pelican Rapids tournament with a loss to Norman County East (68-32), the Panthers snapped a 32-game losing streak with a 47-37 win over Rothsay.
Park Rapids would lose their final 19 games of the season.
A conference loss to Detroit Lakes (55-25) was followed with losses to Sebeka (62-26), Warroad (56-34) and Frazee (72-26).
Back-to-back conference losses to Wadena-Deer Creek (66-33) and Staples-Motley (100-31) were followed by losses to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (84-22) and Perham (75-40).
The Panthers dropped consecutive conference games to Crosby-Ironton (49-28) and Pequot Lakes (85-32) and lost to Nevis (67-47) before battling Walker-Hackensack-Akeley in an overtime loss (46-40).
In the final six regular-season games, the Panthers were defeated by Detroit Lakes (71-12), Northland (63-51), Bagley (69-14), Pine River-Backus (71-21), Wadena-Deer Creek (57-19) and Pelican Rapids (78-24).
Park Rapids entered the Section 8AA tournament as the No. 7 seed in the north and was eliminated with a 71-33 loss to No. 2 Crookston in the quarterfinals.
Staples-Motley ended the season with a 23-5 record and was rated as high as No. 2 in the state Class AA poll. Sebeka (24-5), Pelican Rapids (23-6), Pine River-Backus (21-8), Pequot Lakes (20-13) and Wadena-Deer Creek (20-8) also won at least 20 games this season. Pequot Lakes (20-13) won the section title and finished fourth at the state Class AA tournament. Also compiling winning records this season were Crosby-Ironton (19-9), Norman County East (19-8), D-G-F (19-9), Nevis (18-10), Crookston (17-11), East Grand Forks (16-11) and W-H-A (15-12).
Warroad and Detroit Lakes both finished at 13-13 while Frazee (13-14), Bagley (12-15), Northland (11-13), Menahga (11-14) and Perham (11-15) had at least 10 wins.
For the season, the Panthers shot 23.8 percent from the field (14 percent on 3-pointers) and 55.5 percent at the free throw line while averaging 31.6 turnovers a game. In contrast, Park Rapids' opponents shot 39.3 percent from the field (including 31.5 percent on 3-pointers) and 58.6 percent at the line while averaging 15.2 turnovers a game. The Panthers scored 774 points in 26 games, scoring at least 40 points in only five games. Park Rapids' opponents scored 1,803 points and scored at least 50 points in 23 games and hit at least 70 points 14 times.
"I feel we accomplished some of the things we set out to accomplish," said Lembcke. "We played very well for stretches of games. We just need to find a way to stay consistent."
Leading the Panthers this season were senior Greta Hanson; juniors Grace Bateman, Amber Booge, Katelyn Hilmanowski, Caitlan Isaacson, Tori Lauderbaugh, Morgan Olson and Nicole Price; sophomores Charity Ridlon and Justine Rittgers; and freshmen Megan Grimes, Hope Johnson and Katie Klein.
At the start of the season, only Booge, Hilmanowski, Isaacson, Olson, Price and Ridlon had any varsity experience. Those five combined to score 37 points last season in limited roles. Bateman, who joined the team after missing the first 12 games, returned with the most experience after scoring 70 points last season.
Klein led the Panthers this season by averaging 7.1 points a game. In 26 games, Klein scored 185 points by making 68 of 279 field goals and 35 of 61 free throws. Klein also led the team with 14 3-pointers and 54 steals and had 84 rebounds, 15 assists and five blocked shots. Klein scored in double figures seven times with a team-high 17 points in one game.
Ridlon was named the Panthers' Most Valuable Player after averaging 4.9 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. In 26 games, Ridlon scored 127 points and had 139 rebounds, 40 steals, 32 assists and 18 blocked shots. Ridlon made 45 of 161 field goals and 36 of 61 free throws. Ridlon had a season high of 14 points.
Grimes was third in scoring at 4.5 points a game and led the team in rebounding with 8.5 per game. Grimes scored 116 points and had a team-leading 221 rebounds and 19 blocked shots while finishing second with 45 steals in 26 games. Grimes, who also had 16 assists, made 45 of 138 field goals and 26 of 48 free throws. Grimes scored a season high of 13 points.
Bateman played in 14 games and scored 45 points, averaging 3.2 points a game. Bateman made 12 of 51 field goals and 18 of 27 free throws while tallying 18 rebounds, eight steals and five assists. Bateman received the team's Spirit Award.
Lauderbaugh played in 24 games and had 65 points, 77 rebounds and nine steals. Lauderbaugh made 24 of 87 field goals and 17 of 34 free throws.
Johnson played in all 26 games and had 58 points, 27 rebounds, 19 assists and 15 steals while making 20 of 84 field goals and 17 of 29 free throws.
Rittgers also played in all 26 games and finished with 57 points, 51 rebounds, 13 assists, six steals and six blocked shots. Rittgers made 19 of 79 field goals and 18 of 31 free throws.
Booge also played in all 26 games and had 35 points, 30 rebounds, 22 steals and 19 assists while making 16 of 118 field goals.
Olson had 19 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals in 19 games. Olson made 8 of 33 field goals.
Price played in all 26 games and had 16 points, 31 rebounds, eight steals and six assists. Price made 5 of 33 field goals and 6 of 13 free throws.
Hanson had 10 points, 14 rebounds and eight steals in 24 games and made 3 of 17 field goals and 4 of 9 free throws. Hanson was named the Panthers' Most Improved Player.
Isaacson played in 25 games and had 9 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and three steals while making 1 of 19 shots and 7 of 9 free throws.
Junior Kaitlin Olson played in the final three games and had five rebounds.
Looking ahead to next season, Lembcke is counting on the Panthers to improve and close the gap on the teams in the conference and section.
"We should be a better overall team coming into next year as we return most of our core players," said Lembcke. "However, there are a number of teams on our schedule that return most, if not all, of their players as well. We need to become better shooters as well as become more familiar with our system and each other's games. Our key to next year will be how much we improve during the offseason."