The season didn't start well for the Rapid City Central girls' basketball team.
An 0-4 start featuring double digit losses to Bismarck Legacy, N.D., Fossil Ridge, Colo., Bismarck Century, N.D. and Mitchell eliminated the Cobblers from state tournament contention in many people's eyes.
A lot can change in a few months.
After a 49-45 win over Brookings in the Round of 16, the Cobblers qualified for their third straight Class AA State Tournament, and it probably wouldn't have happened without Juneau Jones.
The Junior forward had a big game in the Round of 16, with 18 points, six rebounds and five steals. She was a defensive specialist on last year's team that finished fourth at state, but this year she has had to do it all. Not just improve offensively, but also become a leader of a team that has only two seniors.
"Her leadership and her aggressiveness have really grown throughout the season, its absolutely the right time for us for her to be playing the way she is," Central coach Kraig Blomme said. "She can do a little bit of everything, she’s had a 16 rebound game, 11 steals in one game, she can do a lot of things on the basketball court. She handles the ball for us, she usually guards the other teams biggest players, she is a phenomenal basketball player."
Jones and senior Bailey Johnson have been called upon to lead, and Jones admitted it was something that was stressful at first. She also said it's a role she's grown into, as the Cobblers have gone 9-7 since their 0-4 start.
"It’s good to prove people wrong," she said. "Me and Bailey have been the only experienced players on varsity this year so we’ve had to step up a lot. It was hard because the girls might not catch on. It was frustrating at times, but the girls have improved a lot, and so have we. All of us have grown."
The biggest growth, according to Blomme and Jones, has been being more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. On last year's senior-led team, Jones came off the bench, and was happy to pass the ball and play good defense.
This year she has been called on to be the primary scorer, and it's role she has settled into well.
"Last year with coming off the bench and there being so many seniors that could score, she would be more passive offensively and let the other girls shoot," Blomme said. "This year, she’s being aggressive, looking for her shot and she’s really hard to guard. Juneau is one of the most competitive players I’ve ever coached, and I think that is part of the reason she is as successful as she is."
Jones has been playing under Blomme since middle school, but her role as a leader was tested after the first weekend.
Still, even after the 0-4 start, Jones said she wasn't necessarily discouraged by the opening weekend of games.
"When we started out, honestly we were all surprised at how we played," she said. "It didn’t look like we played great, but we played better than any of us were expecting, even our parents."
That confidence took off, and now the young Cobblers are one of the eight Class AA teams that are still practicing this week.
"After the way we started the season, to turn it around and continue to get better throughout the season, to come away with a big win in a big situation to get back to the state tournament is huge for these girls," Blomme said. "A lot of it is because they’ve been part of a team that’s been to state the last two years and they see what it takes to get the job done in those big situations. They all stepped up, they did a good job."
Central will take on the No. 1 seed in the tournament in the first round, Aberdeen Central, Thursday at 11 noon from the PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls.
Other athletes considered:
Cooper Bowman, Rapid City Stevens boys' basketball: Bowman went head-to-head with Pierre's Peyton Zabel in the Raiders' Round of 16 game, and Bowman came out victorious.
Not only did Stevens win 60-45, but Bowman scored 25 points and held the usually potent Zabel to 15. The Raiders enter the Class AA Tournament as the No. 1 seed and a matchup with Sioux Falls O'Gorman.
Dan Hand, Douglas boys' basketball: In a double overtime shootout, the Patriots were able to lock up their first trip to the state tournament as a Class AA school with a 72-69 win over Brandon Valley, and Hand was a big part of that.
He led Douglas in scoring with 22 points, and secured a matchup with Central in the first round of the state tournament.
Cameron Hall, Rapid City Central boys' basketball: In a game where 13 Cobblers scored, Hall hit six 3-pointers and led all scorers with 20 points in Central's 100-41 Round of 16 win over Spearfish.
Jadice Morrison, White River boys' basketball: Morrison had a big night, scoring 22 points as the Tigers advanced to the Class B Round of 16 with a 81-57 win over Lyman in Region 7A.
Sydney Smith, Rapid City Stevens girls' basketball: Smith led the Raiders in scoring in a defensive battle against Sioux Falls Roosevelt.
She scored 16 points in a 46-23 win in the Round of 16 to advance to the state tournament.