Nic Lembcke likes the direction that the Park Rapids girls basketball program is heading.
Lembcke, who served as the Panthers’ head coach during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, returned as the head coach this season after coaching in the boys program for eight years and serving as an assistant coach for the girls last season.
In his return as head coach, Lembcke focused on defense knowing that the offense was switching from relying on strong interior play to relying on perimeter play. Despite games with inconsistent shooting, the Panthers put together a respectable 3-5 record in Mid-State Conference play and a 7-11 overall mark.
“I really enjoyed returning this season as the head coach. I got my start 14 years ago in the girls basketball program. I spent eight years in the boys program prior to last season and learned a lot, but I have always had a soft spot for the girls program and I'm glad I was able to return,” said Lembcke. “To me, it just feels like the right place at the right time. I am looking forward to continuing to help this program to grow. We have a lot of talented players that are also just great kids. The future of this program looks bright.”
The season got off to a rough start as the Panthers were defeated by Frazee (54-42) and Crookston (54-18) before dropping the conference openers to Detroit Lakes (71-40) and Pequot Lakes (43-36).
A three-game winning streak followed as Park Rapids defeated Staples-Motley (72-68) in a conference game, Roseau (66-52) and Staples-Motley again (77-62). Those wins were followed by a four-game losing streak as the Panthers dropped games to Aitkin (50-47 in overtime) in a conference game, Hawley (77-43), Crosby-Ironton (71-49) in another conference game and Wadena-Deer Creek (35-34).
A three-game winning streak featured victories over Aitkin (61-39), Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (55-41) and Thief River Falls (66-40). Park Rapids closed out the regular season with losses to Pequot Lakes (73-35) in the conference finale and West Central Area (75-48).
Pequot Lakes won the conference title with an 8-1 record while Crosby-Ironton finished at 7-2 and Detroit Lakes went 6-3. Following the Panthers were Staples-Motley at 2-8 and Aitkin at 1-8.
Going 4-4 against section opponents gave Park Rapids the No. 3 seed in the North for the Section 8AA playoffs. The Panthers opened with a 74-61 win over No. 6 East Grand Forks at home before having the season end with a 56-27 loss to Pelican Rapids, the No. 2 seed in the South. Pelican Rapids went on to defeat Fergus Falls 52-46 in the section championship game.
For the season, the Panthers averaged 49.4 points a game while shooting 28.7% from the field (making 306 of 1,067 shots, including 85 of 332 3-pointers) and 55% at the free throw line (193 for 351). Park Rapids’ opponents shot 38.7% from the field (369 for 954, including 69 for 220 on 3-pointers) and 60.7% at the line (212 for 349) in averaging 56.7 points a game. Park Rapids averaged 19.7 turnovers a game while forcing 13.9 turnovers a game.
Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Hannah Morgan and Brooke Knutson; juniors Holly Johnson and Abby Morris; sophomores Mickey Clark, Olivia Davis, Mady Maninga, Chloe Tretbar and Tori Weaver; and freshman Gabi Shepersky.
Weaver led the Panthers in scoring at 14.5 points a game, compiling 261 points in 18 starts. Weaver also led the team with 33 3-pointers, 44 steals and 17 blocked shots while chipping in 91 rebounds and 21 assists.
Davis was second on the team in scoring at 7.3 points a game and led the Panthers with 121 rebounds while contributing 41 steals and 21 assists to go along with 131 points in 18 starts.
Morris also started all 18 games and averaged 6.6 points a game while making 17 3-pointers and scoring 119 points. Morris led the team with 47 assists and had 43 steals and 11 blocked shots.
Morgan played in all 18 games and averaged 5.6 points a game by scoring 100 points. Morgan made 12 3-pointers and had 49 rebounds, 23 steals, 20 assists and 12 blocked shots.
Maninga scored 69 points for an average of 4.1 per game and had 47 rebounds in 17 games.
Shepersky made 17 3-pointers and scored 68 points with 20 rebounds in 17 games.
Clark played in all 18 games and contributed 59 points, 55 rebounds, 40 steals and 25 assists.
Tretbar scored 35 points and had 75 rebounds, 17 assists and 17 steals in 17 games.
Johnson played in 15 games and finished with 30 points and 32 rebounds.
Knutson saw action in six games.
Also seeing some varsity playing time were sophomore Julia Harmon and Natalia Lopez; freshmen Macey Lund and Kilea Persons; and eighth grader Anna Yliniemi.
“I was happy with how we progressed this year. We graduated some really good players last season and we needed a lot of young players to step up and fill roles for us this year,” said Lembcke. “With the makeup of our team, we also needed them to learn an entirely different offensive system. Our offense wasn't your typical Point A to Point B offense, but was rather based on making reads. We knew this would take time and the shortened summer didn't help, but we thought this would give us the best chance to win down the stretch. I thought things were really starting to click towards the end of the year and that helped us to secure and win a home playoff game.”
With a year of learning a new offensive system complete and with the entire starting cast and top reserves back except Morgan, Lembke is counting on continued success from the Panthers next season.
“We graduate a couple of seniors. They were good leaders for us and the energy that they brought to our team will be missed. Other girls are going to need to step up and fill that void. Even though we were a young team, (the seniors) were committed to helping our young players grow to help us be as successful as possible this season, but also helping to build a foundation for the future. I think their contributions will be felt for years to come,” said Lembcke. “We bring back a lot of talent next year program wide. We also bring in a talented group of freshmen while only losing a couple of players from varsity. That leaves us with a lot of talent and only so many open spots, which should make things very competitive within our program. That is a healthy place for our program to be and figures to make us competitive at all three levels next year. I am looking forward to seeing which girls step up and earn those spots. I think a big key for us next year will be to increase our shooting percentage. This will definitely be an emphasis for us this offseason. For the most part I thought our shot selection was good. We just need to be able to knock down those shots. We won games this year with our defense and our effort. We were able to use those two things to create extra possessions and extra shot opportunities for ourselves which helped overcome our shooting percentage. If we can become better shooters while still creating those extra possessions, we are going to be a very hard team to beat next year.”