With only two players returning with extended varsity experience, head coach Jeff Overmyer knew it would take some time for the Park Rapids girls basketball team to hit its stride.
After opening the season by going 3-9 in the first 12 games, the Panthers closed the regular season with a 9-5 mark and opened the Section 8AA playoffs with a win to cap off a 13-15 overall record.
“We had to fill five varsity positions and we adopted a new offense and a new defense. It took us until the second week of January for this team to start to click,” said Overmyer. “We struggled early on, but our goal was to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season and we did that. The girls continued to work hard. Overall, I thought it was a very positive year.”
The Panthers opened the season with losses to Pelican Rapids (84-47), Perham (88-51) and Barnesville (61-47) in games against Section 8AA opponents. After defeating Staples-Motley (56-49) in the Mid-State Conference opener, losing to Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (58-49) and defeating Aitkin (64-50) in another conference game, Park Rapids went 1-5 in the next six games. Losses to Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (57-31), Pine River-Backus (56-52) and Sebeka (69-58) were followed by a win over Bagley (75-23 in a section game) and losses to Menahga (61-48) and Crookston (71-42) in section games.
Park Rapids rebounded with an 8-2 record in the next 10 games, beginning with a 63-55 victory over Detroit Lakes in a conference game and a 52-44 win over Frazee in a section game. After falling to Pequot Lakes 70-62 in a conference game, the Panthers defeated Crosby-Ironton (53-44) and Staples-Motley (65-54) in Mid-State play and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (56-53) in a section battle. After falling to Hawley 60-49 in another section game, the Panthers posted conference wins over Aitkin (63-39) and Crosby-Ironton (60-57) before defeating Nevis (61-42).
Losses to Roseau (71-43 in a section game) and Detroit Lakes (60-55) were followed by a 64-61 section win over Wadena-Deer Creek. The regular season ended with a 62-46 loss to Pequot Lakes. That loss left the Panthers and Pequot Lakes tied for second place in the conference standings at 7-3. Detroit Lakes won the conference title with a 9-1 record while Crosby-Ironton (5-5), Staples-Motley (2-8) and Aitkin (0-10) rounded out the Mid-State standings.
For the Section 8AA tournament, the Panthers received the No. 4 seed in the North and opened with an 86-75 win over No. 5 Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton at home before being eliminated with an 82-51 loss to Fergus Falls, the No. 1 seed in the South at Concordia College. Pelican Rapids, the No. 2 seed in the South, edged Fergus Falls 43-41 in the Section 8AA championship game.
Fergus Falls (No. 3) and Pelican Rapids (No. 5) were rated in the final regular-season state Class AA poll while W-H-A was rated No. 3 in the final regular-season state Class A poll.
For the season, the Panthers averaged 55.0 points a game while allowing 59.1 points a game. Park Rapids shot 37.2% from the field (584 for 1,568, including 102 for 402 on 3-pointers) and 54.5% at the free throw line (269 for 494) while the opposition shot 39.2% from the field (590 for 1,507, including 117 for 414 on 3-pointers) and 65.5% at the line (359 for 548). The Panthers averaged 23.2 turnovers while forcing 22.6 turnovers a game.
With only seniors Rilee Michaelson and Paige Johnson returning to the varsity lineup, the Panthers had to rely on the other players to step up and take over the other three starting spots and provide depth off the bench. Senior Maddie Soldwisch; juniors Katie Burlingame and Hannah Morgan; sophomores Abby Morris and Holly Johnson; and freshmen Tori Weaver and Olivia Davis filled those roles.
Michaelson led the Panthers with 388 points, 212 rebounds and 24 blocked shots in 25 games. The senior center shot 43.6% from the field (167 for 383, including 10 for 55 on 3-pointers) and 50.6% at the free throw line (44 for 87) while adding 67 assists and 67 steals. Michaelson had 10 double-doubles with highs of 26 points and 18 rebounds while averaging 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Michaelson finished with 1,631 career points.
Paige Johnson was second in scoring and rebounding with 257 points and 164 rebounds while leading the team with 81 steals and also finishing second with 69 assists and 19 blocks in 25 games. The senior forward shot 47.2% from the floor (101 for 214) and 55.1% at the line (54 for 98) with four double-doubles and highs of 22 points and 16 rebounds. Johnson averaged 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds a game.
Weaver scored in double figures 13 times with a high of 19 while averaging 9.8 points a game. The freshman guard made 93 of 238 shots, including a team-leading 43 of 124 3-pointers, for 39.1% and 46 of 68 free throws for 67.6% in scoring 275 points. Weaver also had 116 rebounds, 68 assists and 46 steals in 28 games.
Morris started all 28 games at point guard and averaged 5.8 points a game, shooting 37.0% from the field (51 for 138, including 14 for 50 on 3-pointers) and 53.4% at the line (47 for 88) in scoring 163 points. Morris led the team with 82 assists and had 91 rebounds and 62 steals. Morris scored a season high of 17 points while hitting double figures three times.
Morgan hit double figures eight times with a high of 15 while averaging 7.6 points a game by shooting 28.8% from the floor (61 for 212, including 25 for 103 on 3-pointers) and 65.1% at the line (28 for 43) for 175 points. Morgan also had 62 rebounds, 30 assists and 29 steals in 23 games as a guard.
Holly Johnson played in 23 games as a guard, averaging 2.8 points a game. Johnson made 26 of 90 shots (including 3 of 21 3-pointers) for 28.9% and 9 of 20 free throws for 45.0% in scoring 64 points. Johnson also chipped in 57 rebounds, 26 assists and 22 steals.
Burlingame played in 27 games as a reserve forward, scoring 80 points by making 31 of 107 shots (29.0%) and 17 of 36 free throws (47.2%). Burlingame also had 72 rebounds, 18 steals and 13 assists.
Davis, a reserve forward, played in 24 games and had 50 points, 45 rebounds and 14 steals. Davis made 20 of 50 shots (40%) and 10 of 26 free throws (38.5%).
Soldwisch capped off her senior season as a reserve forward by scoring 26 points by making 10 of 44 shots (22.7%) and 5 of 11 free throws while contributing 33 rebounds and 11 steals in 18 games.
Juniors Ari Borge and Brooke Knutson and freshmen Mickey Clark, Christina Engst, Julia Harmon, Mady Maninga and Chloe Tretbar also saw some varsity time as reserves.
Michaelson was named the Mid-State’s MVP and was joined by Paige Johnson as all-conference players. Morris and Weaver received all-conference honorable mention honors. Michaelson was also named the Panthers’ Team MVP while Paige Johnson received the team’s Defensive MVP award. Soldwisch, who joined Michaelson and Paige Johnson as captains, received the team’s Spirit Award while Morris was named Most Improved.
The Panthers will have three key positions to fill next season. However, Overmyer is hoping the experience gained by the underclassmen this season will pay off next year.
“We’re going to be a completely different team next year. We graduate three seniors who were great captains and provided great leadership. Without the inside play of Rilee and Paige, we’re going to have to have a completely different mindset next year,” said Overmyer, who was assisted by Nic Lembcke and Concha Uzozie. “We’re going to be a young team next year. We’re going to have to play a lot of kids, utilize our quickness by full-court pressing the entire game and rely on our defense to get easy points. The girls will really need to work on their outside shooting this summer. I feel the program is in pretty good shape, but we’ll really need some girls to step up next year.”