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Lady Panthers reflect on tough season, look to future

By Sue Sitter - | Mar 6, 2021

Submitted Photo The 2020-21 Rugby Panthers pose for a pre-season photo.

Rugby High’s Lady Panthers finished a tough post-season climb in Minot with a razor-thin 45-47 loss to the Panthers of Glenburn High in the final game of the Region 6 playoffs Feb. 25.

The loss came as the clock ran out on a rally by Rugby in the fourth quarter, which saw Rugby claw their way back from a 13-point deficit.

“But they have nothing to hang their heads about,” Rugby Panthers Head Coach Jen Brossart said.

Brossart described the season as “a testament to perseverance.”

“We started out going into the season on a high note coming off a fifth-place finish at last year’s state tournament, and surprisingly being able to get quite a bit of basketball done locally over last summer and managing to play some team camps finally in July, even though COVID definitely put a damper on things,” Brossart wrote in a message to the Tribune.

Two players set for the basketball season dropped from the active roster just weeks before the opening game. Center Brooke Blessum and forward Riley Grove both suffered season-ending injuries in volleyball, giving them new roles for the team. Both lent support from the bench for the season.

“That made the coaching staff adjust the lineup a little, but nothing else really changed as far as what our team goals were going to be,” Brossart said. “We wanted to be able to win the district regular season outright, win the district tournament and return to the Region 6 title game.”

Brossart added, “We had a few bumps and bruises along the way. Having an up and down regular season and playing a tough schedule was tough on the girls as a whole, but they were able to pull it together down the stretch of the regular season and go into the tournament season playing well and with a new fire that may have been lacking in the middle part of the season.”

“We played a stretch of 14 games in 30 days and that can be tough on any team when you are healthy,” Brossart noted, “but to be battling injuries during that time is not easy.”

Among the teams on the Panthers’ regular schedule were teams who’ve made regular appearances at state such as the Carrington Cardinals, who some say will be a team to watch as state this year.

“Having six seniors who have been together for years all the way back since playing in fifth grade, they were a really close group of girls and they were good leaders as they came up through the ranks,” Brossart said of Brooke Blessum, Grove, guards Sarah Blessum and Tesha Sobolik, centers Isabella McCabe and Gabrielle Sullivan.

Two of the seniors, McCabe and Sobolik, said the team was more than willing to put in the hard work needed to get to the final regional game.

“We knew it was going to be a lot different adjusting without (Grove and Brooke Blessum) but we knew we were up to the challenge,” Sobolik said of the season. “That was just something to work at. We were going to have to start stepping up and some taller people were going to have to fill those positions and we were just going to have to get used to it.”

“When we got into regionals, we knew it was going to be a little bit more difficult and we would have to play every game super hard and play every game one game at a time,” McCabe said. We had to put our all in because we knew it was one and done. We just had to play our hardest every game.”

Brossart called the Panthers’ loss at the Minot Auditorium, where they’ve punched their ticket to state in 2019 and 2020, “tough on them.”

However, Brossart added, “They have had phenomenal careers here at RHS and they will go on and do great things in the next chapter of their lives. We have a nice group of underclassmen coming up, so the torch will have to be passed so to speak, and the new leaders will need to emerge as we look toward the 21-22 season.”

Sophomore Mykelle Heidlebaugh, a forward on the team, was a top scorer for the season. She and Sarah Blessum were named to the 2021 All-Region team after the tournament’s final game.

“I’m coming back to basketball next year,” she said with a smile.

“I’m just hoping that we make it back to the regional championship and I know that we can because we still have an amazing group,” Heidlebaugh added. “Even though we lost six valuable teammates and players, I know that we can get back there and I have high hopes for the next season.”

All three girls said they’ve turned their focus to the future. Sobolik said she plans to participate in softball and track this spring, and McCabe said she’ll be in track as well.

After graduation, McCabe said she plans to study psychology at NDSU, while Sobolik will attend Minot State to major in social work.

“I think we all made good memories because it was such a different season,” McCabe said. “We had different girls step up and none of us were prepared for what would happen and we didn’t know if our team would be shut down because of quarantine. But luckily, no.”

“We want to thank the community for their support in the difficult (conditions),” Heidlebaugh added. “Even with COVID, they still came out and supported us.”

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