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Panthers take districts, head for regionals in Minot

By Sue Sitter - | Feb 20, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Rugby Panthers guard Sarah Blessum takes a jump shot in the final round of the District 11 tournament against Velva Feb. 13.

When the Rugby Panthers took their home court in Charlie Hanneman Gym for the District 11 Championship Tournament Feb. 11 through 13, they started a new season of play from scratch.

Although the Panthers enjoyed the advantage of a home venue and the number one seed because of their regular season record of zero defeats against district opponents, Head Coach Jennifer Brossart said the Panthers needed to prove themselves all over again or end their season early.

Brossart called districts “a second season.”

The Panthers ended their second season the same as they had the first, undefeated against district opponents.

With a bye on the tournament’s first day, the Panthers met the Westhope-Newburg Sioux, a team already sharpened by a 48-29 victory over Nedrose.

The Sioux brought their energy from that game to the Panthers. Guard Ellie Braaten scored the first for the Sioux, who soon led by six points in the first quarter.

However, their brief lead disappeared when the Panthers went on the offensive. Panthers guard Anna Johnson and forward Mykell Heidlebaugh each sank three-point shots. Forward Sarah Blessum, who would be named District 11 Senior Athlete of the Year, sank a two-point rebound to add to three more by Heidlebaugh. More rebound shots came from guard Tesha Sobolik and Gabi Sullivan, who took three trips to the free throw line in the half and sank four of six bonus shots. The Panthers ended the quarter with a 19-16 lead, which grew to a 39-27 lead at the half.

The battle intensified, with personal and team fouls leading to more free throws in the second half. The Sioux managed only two of five free throw attempts in the third quarter as the Panthers dominated the court. The Panthers wrapped up the game with a 67-45 win.

“Overall, I’m really happy with the effort tonight,” Brossart said after the win. “We had a lot of girls go out there and play. I thought we played defensively very well; I thought we rebounded well. I thought some of our girls finally got some shots going, which was good and all in all, just a great team effort. Now, we’ve got to bring it tomorrow.”

Fresh from a nail-biting 34-33 win over the Bottineau Stars, the Velva Aggies faced the Panthers in the championship round. The Aggies had defeated the Panthers in districts last year.

The Aggies stayed on the Panthers for much of the first quarter, leading narrowly before two free throws from a foul on forward Kendyl Hager put the Panthers ahead 6-5. The Panthers stretched their lead to 10-7 by the first quarter and pulled further ahead with three pointers sunk by Sobolik and Heidlebaugh.

Heidlebaugh would lead the score total for the game with 18 points, followed closely behind by Blessum, who scored 17. The Panthers’ lead grew to 13 points before the Aggies turned up their aggression, with guard Reagan Hildre sinking two buckets and Lillian Effertz landing both a two and three pointer through the net.

The Aggie fouls took Blessum, Sobolik, Hager and forward Isabella McCabe to the free throw line. McCabe made all of her shots in the quarter and scored 8 points for the game.

Although the Panthers saw their lead evaporate to seven points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Rugby kept a comfortable distance between themselves and the Aggies, finishing the game with a nine-point, 53-44 win and the District 11 title over the 2020 District Champion Aggies.

“I thought overall the girls played really well,” Brossart said as the players hugged family and friends, gathering in small groups for socially-distanced photos.

“That’s the tale of Velva and Rugby right there,” Brosssart noted, referring to a years-long rivalry between the Aggies and the Panthers, both who’ve taken turns at the number one District 11 spot in regionals.

“They’re not going to give up and they’re going to fight,” Brossart said of the Aggies. “I thought our girls, for some who had a little less experience, stepped up tonight. I thought Sarah Blessum played with some poise tonight as far as not going to the hole, just going right in,” she said of Blessum’s ability to get around Aggie defenders. “She did a nice job with that little jump shot and defensively, she played awesome. Mikelle Heidlebaugh had a good game. I thought Gabi Sullivan played really well the first half. So, it’s a team effort. Westhope was a team effort; tonight was a team effort and then we’ll work at it again in practice this week,” Brossart added.

Brossart said the Panthers would practice to get set for round one in regionals, to be held Feb. 22 in Minot Auditorium. The Panthers will face District 12 fourth-seed Des Lacs Burlington.

Brossart said the team would “just take one thing at a time” at regionals. “That first game’s a real tough one, that regional opener. They’ve just got to come out and play hard,” she said. ” We’ve got to shoot the ball well; we’ve got to be patient offensively. But, like I said, we started a second season, now we’ve got to start a third season and our record’s back to zero and zero again after tonight.”

Scoring for Rugby vs. Westhope-Newburg:

Rugby: Mykell Heidlebaugh, 21 pts.; Anna Johnson, 11 pts.; Gabi Sullivan, 10 pts.; Kendyl Hager, 9 pts.; Sarah Blessum, 6 pts.; Tesha Sobolik, 5 pts.; Isabella McCabe, 3 pts., Mya Geisinger, 2 pts.

Westhope-Newburg: Ellie Braaten, 19 pts.; Kimberly Tabarez, 8 pts.; Destiny Hawkins, 5 pts.; Ashley Tabarez, 4 pts.; Ally Wyman, 3 pts.; Karen Solis, 3 pts.; Laken Lee, 2 pts.

Scoring for Rugby vs. Velva were:

Rugby: Heidlebaugh, 18 pts.; Blessum, 17 pts.; McCabe, 8 pts.; Sobolik, 4 pts.; Sullivan, 4 pts.; Hager, 2 pts.

Velva: Sophie Hackman, 16 pts.; Whitney Schepp, 8 pts.; Reagan Hildre, 6 pts.; Rylee Frantzen, 6 pts.; Lillian Effertz, 6 pts.; Olivia Passa, 2 pts.

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