After last season ended, head coach Jeff Overmyer knew the summer would be crucial in finding players to take over three starting spots.
The Panthers graduated five seniors who played key roles in going 5-5 for fourth place in the Mid-State Conference standings and 14-11 overall last season. That group featured guards Kaisa Coborn, Kendra Coborn, Julia Johnson, Natalie Kinkel and Whitney Steffel. Kaisa Coborn received Class AA All-State Honorable Mention and all-conference honors after averaging 17.4 points a game to end her career with 1,169 points for the No. 7 spot in school history. Coborn also led the team with 75 steals while adding 102 rebounds and 98 assists in 24 games as a starting guard. Kendra Coborn was fourth on the team in scoring at 6.3 points a game while leading the team with 138 assists and adding 105 rebounds and 66 steals in scoring 152 points in 24 games as a starting guard. Johnson (96 points, 73 rebounds, 40 steals and 30 assists), Steffel (95 points, 70 rebounds, 18 steals, 13 assists) and Kinkel (83 points, 46 steals, 38 assists, 28 rebounds) played in all 25 games and alternated as the other starter.
Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are the two returning starters: senior post players Rilee Michaelson and Paige Johnson.
Michaelson was named the Panthers’ MVP after leading the team in scoring at 19.4 points a game and in rebounding at 11.2 rebounds a night. Michaelson scored 485 points to move into the No. 5 spot in school history with 1,245 points while grabbing 280 rebounds in 25 games. The all-conference center also had 60 steals and 50 assists while leading the team with 28 blocked shots.
Johnson started 19 games and averaged 8.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. Johnson scored 153 points and had 102 rebounds, 43 steals and 21 assists as a forward.
Looking to take over the other starting spots and provide depth off the bench are five players who saw limited varsity action a year ago. That group features junior forwards Katie Burlingame (25 points, 21 rebounds in 13 games) and Brooke Knutson (eight games), junior guard Hannah Morgan (15 points in seven games), and sophomore guards Holly Johnson (four games) and Abby Morris (four games). Senior forward Maddie Soldwisch and freshmen forwards Olivia Davis and Tori Weaver will round out the varsity roster.
Comprising the junior varsity and C squad teams will be junior Ari Borge; sophomore Aurora Annette; and freshmen Avery Cederstrom, Chloe Tretbar, Christina Engst, Julia Harmon, Mady Maninga, Mickey Clark, Natalia Lopez, Aleka London, Haley Kerr, Kiza Nelmark, Linda Diaz and Lyvia Livermore.
Last season, the Panthers averaged 61.4 points a game while allowing 57.8 points a night. Park Rapids shot 42.2% from the field and 61.4% on free throws while turning the ball over an average of 20.2 times a game.
“We have talent, but we lack varsity experience. We have three open spots to fill, so we might have to have some freshmen step up and fill those spots,” said Overmyer, whose team opened the season with an 84-47 loss to Pelican Rapids on Nov. 22. “We going to focus on defense and try to push the ball whenever we can. We’re also going to make a concerted effort to lower our turnovers. We’re going to concentrate on defense and hope to get a lot of points off our defense.”
Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton shared the conference title with 7-3 records while Aitkin went 6-4 and Detroit Lakes joined the Panthers at 5-5. Roseau repeated as the Section 8AA champion. Overmyer sees an even tougher section with the addition of Section 8AAA champion Fergus Falls, Section 5A champion Menahga and Section 6A semifinalist Pelican Rapids joining the 18-team section. Fergus Falls, Roseau, Hawley and Crookston were tabbed as the favorites in the section entering the season.
“I think the conference will be wide open. I think we have a legitimate shot at being conference champs. It all depends on who shows up to play and who executes,” said Overmyer, who will be assisted by Nic Lembcke and Concha Uzozie. “We have a tough, tough section. I think we can beat any team on our schedule, but most teams can also beat us. We have a good group of girls with good team chemistry. We’re relying on some younger girls to take over varsity roles, so we’re playing for the end of the season. We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. I don’t know how the season will go, but I’m looking forward to it.”