RAPID CITY — Back in January, it was difficult to foresee the O’Gorman girls basketball team’s season lasting beyond the Region 1AA championship in early March.
With just two returning starters from last year’s third-place squad, the Knights stumbled to a 6-9 start. They were competitive in most of their nine losses, losing them by an average of seven points (five were by four or fewer points), but there is no such thing as spirit wins, and veteran head coach Kent Kolsrud urged his players to remain level-headed through the adversity.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Class AA state tournaments
“I remember coming into the locker room midseason and saying if we can find a way to make the state tournament and make a run at it, you’ll forget about all these tough losses you’ve had,” Kolsrud recalled. “We talked about the potential for this team to make a run at the state tournament if we continue to get better and stay together and continue to play good basketball.”
O’Gorman stuck together through those rugged couple of months and in February, it quietly started to build momentum.
“Down the stretch, I felt like our kids were really gaining confidence,” Kolsrud said. “As we got confidence, they started believing, especially in that district championship. You could just see that they really were believing they could do something special.”
The Knights strung together wins in three of their final five games to close out the regular season, then knocked off Brookings to advance to the District 1AA championship game where they encountered Roosevelt, a team which had beaten them twice during the regular season.
With the odds seemingly stacked against them, the Knights found a way to win, grinding out a 50-38 win to reach the state tournament.
“When we beat Roosevelt in districts, we all thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we could actually do this. We could win the next games,” said senior Ashlee Beacom, who finished with 14 points that night.
The Knights rode the momentum into the state tournament, where they knocked off No. 2 Roosevelt – again – in the quarterfinals.
Out of nowhere, the 9-11 Knights had clinched their spot in the state championship.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of the season (we would be in the finals), I wouldn’t have believed it,” Beacom said following the semifinal win. “But we worked really hard and we got here.”
The Harrisburg matchup was a daunting one.
The Tigers had won 23 games in-a-row, most recently against Rapid City Central in the AA semifinals.
Their offense, led by a trio of high-caliber shooters in Sam Slaughter, Sydney Halling and Jeniah Ugofsky, arrived at the state tournament averaging over 55 points per game.
Harrisburg was, by most accounts, the odds-on favorites to win this year’s state tournament.
But that narrative only served to fuel the Knights.
“Going in, we kind of knew that everyone expected them to win,” Akoi said. “So we used that to our advantage.”
Akoi played a crucial role in O’Gorman’s strong start, aggressively slicing through the Tigers’ defense, wgetting to the rim and picking up points in the paint.
Her efforts inside eventually led to opportunities for her teammates from the perimeter and they capitalized.
When Harrisburg began to make its push in the second quarter and late in regulation, other players started stepping up, helping the Knights maintain their advantage.
“We just had multiple people step up and make big plays over the course of the last three days,” Kolsrud said. “I thought Kendyl Kreber did a tremendous job defensively all state tournament. McKenzie Hermanson hit big shots. Obviously, the three that made the all-tournament team, Emma Ronsick is a freshman hitting big shots, Ashlee Beacom and Sebastian Akoi were just huge. Your two returning starters, your leaders have to make big plays in big games and those two certainly did that tonight.”
At the end of the night, Cinderella was dressed in blue.
The O’Gorman girls had completed their improbable run with their first state championship since 1995.
“I’m so proud that they stayed the course,” Kolsrud said. “It was tough, it was a grind. A lot of ups, a lot of downs, but they stayed together and kept working for us… These are all such good kids. We had great team chemistry. They were playing for each other and playing for the name on the front of the jersey.
“I knew that we could do it,” Beacom said. “I knew that if we worked together that we could do it.”
The win was especially sweet for Kolsrud, who had finished runner-up four times in his 19-year stint as O’Gorman’s coach.
“It’s wonderful I’m so proud of these kids. I’m proud of all the teams I’ve coached,” he said. “Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be a couple different times and I’m so proud of those teams as well, but it sure was nice to finish the deal and win a state championship.”
Brian Hank Haenchen (@Brian_Haenchen) March 19, 2017
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen .