Bailey Johnson is one of basically two players returning for the Rapid City Central girls’ basketball team that saw any significant court action last season.
Along with junior Juneau Jones, they were the key in getting the inexperienced Cobblers back to the state tournament.
Johnson captained the ship from her point guard position.
Although she had played in the last two state tournaments for the Cobblers, this was a new experience for the senior. She backed up Karli O’Brien last year at the point guard position, so this would be her first season as a varsity starter.
“Me and Juneau had to be the leaders on the court, showing what it is like to be in a varsity game,” she said. “It is much faster, the tempo is faster. It is a different game than playing JV and sophomore. We didn’t know how each other played in the beginning of the season, so we had to practice a lot.”
The Cobblers open the state tournament Thursday at noon (MDT) against top-seed Aberdeen Central.
Johnson said the team’s focus in practice has been to work hard and trust the process.
“I had a little experience being a leader and playmaker out on the court, but coming into this season, I had a big role to fill with all of the seniors gone,” she said. “My mindset was to just get my team better and just to play well together. I knew I had to encourage everyone and tell them that they would get it and we would start clicking on the court. That’s what happened.”
It was a tough start for the Cobblers, who lost their first four games of the season with basically a new team. Central graduated seven seniors from last year’s team that went 17-9 and placed fourth at the state tournament.
To now have a chance to play in the state tournament is a big bonus for the 9-11 team that qualified for state with a 49-45 overtime win over Brookings in the Round of 16 game in Brookings.
“It’s awesome getting to state your senior year,” Johnson said. “In the beginning of the season we stated a little slow, we hadn’t played a lot together. As the season went on, we eventually started to click and started to play well together. All of the practices paid off in the end, and we’re going to state.”
Cobbler coach Kraig Blomme said it is a good feeling for this group of girls to get to the state tournament.
“After the fourth and fifth game we started figuring some things out and started playing together as a team,” he said. “It’s a fitting ending for a group of girls who have worked hard this year.”
Blomme said along with game experience, defense was a key in getting things going.
“Defensively we have been playing well, especially in the Brookings game,” he said. “We switched philosophies a little this year. The girls started playing our zone defense really well, and we mixed in a little junk defense against Brookings. We executed well, and the desire to win that game was outstanding.”
Johnson leads the team in scoring at 12.5 points a game, and has 66 assists, one better than Jones, who is also averaging 9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game. Abbie Freeman is scoring 8.7 points a game, followed by Whitley Heitsch at 8.5 points a game.
Now the Cobblers are opening the tournament against the tournament’s favorite, Aberdeen Central.
It’s a chance for Central to play David in its battle against Goliath.
“We know there is a chance we can beat them, and they are beatable,” Johnson said of Aberdeen Central. “Paiton Burckhard is the big scorer for them (24.4 points a game). We can’t let her get the ball; she will score when she gets the ball. That’s her main focus. If we can keep the ball out of her hands and play well offensively, we have a good shot to win that game.”
Blomme said they will continue to play with a little chip on their shoulders as the No. 8 seed.
“When you go in as the eighth seed, your goal is to win the first game, then win the next one and the next one,” he said. “Right now we’re focused on the first game against Aberdeen. There’s no question that they are an overwhelming favorite and they are an outstanding team. I think we have some things we can do well against them, and we have worked on some defensive philosophies to help us. It was come down to how well we shoot the ball.
Regardless, with a majority of the team coming back next season, playing at the state tournament will help the young team in an area they weren’t strong at in the beginning of the season — experience.
“We’re going to have a freshman, a couple of sophomores and juniors who will play in this tournament,” he said. “It will be a great experience and hopefully a real motivating experience for them for the future, to continue to work hard to get to the top level in the state.”