The two-time Division I state champion Rice Memorial High School girls basketball team hopes to knock off Champlain Valley for the first time in three tries.
The same proposition faces the Redhawks.
While CVU, a perfect 22-0, toppled Rice in two regular-season meetings this winter, the Green Knights have claimed the matchups that have mattered most: the past two D-I title games.
Returning to the final for a third straight year, No. 1 CVU can complete an unblemished season and squash a 26-year title drought in Monday night’s D-I final against a second-seeded Rice squad that has its sights set on a three-peat. Tip-off is 7 at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym, the final high school event of the Vermont Principals’ Association’s winter season.
“This is what the championship should be and what the public wants to see,” Green Knights coach Tim Rice said. “This is the way it should be — 1 vs. 2. Here we go, just like a boxing match — Round 1, Round 2, Round 3.”
Behind junior Emily Kinneston, Gatorade’s Vermont player of the year, and Kaelyn Kohlasch, the Redhawks reloaded this winter with a young crop of talent that includes freshmen Laurel Jaunich and Sadie Otley. Kinneston, at about 13 points per game, is the lone CVU player in double figures. But a balanced attack and a ball-hawking, no-quit defense that implements a press are the ingredients to the Redhawks’ winning formula.
“If we don’t play team defense, how are we going to stop anybody?” asked CVU coach Ute Otley, alluding to her team’s lack of height while praising its depth. “We are just looking to wear them out. In the fourth quarter … hopefully, we’ll be fresher.”
Rice (21-2) has a chance at stringing together three straight crowns, something the program accomplished from 1999-2001, an era headlined by sisters Morgan and Ashley Valley.
This year’s Rice squad brought back three starters — Hailee Barron, Cassidy Derda and Tomi Akinpetide — who spearheaded last winter’s title run. Barron was also the point guard on the 2011 team as a freshman. All three players average in double figures, paced by Derda’s production of 17 points and seven rebounds per game.
“We have to put it aside. It’s about the journey, you can’t get too far ahead of yourselves,” Rice said. “You really have to take care of the task at hand, it’s a long season. You just try to improve every day and make yourself, make your team better.”
The graduation of five of its top seven players opened the door for the program’s youth at CVU.
“They have three very experienced offensive players back, but this team, I don’t think my team cares. I think last year my seniors were really a little bit intimidated,” Otley said. “My group this year? They don’t even know to be intimidated by anyone. … It’s not going to change now.
“No matter what happens on Monday, this has been a ridiculous season for CVU basketball. The girls are going to come in loose and ready to get after it,” Otley said.