BOISE – As the final one-tenth of a second clicked off the clock at the Ford Nampa Center, the Blackfoot Lady Broncos bench erupted in joy and the fans who had made the trip from Blackfoot to the Treasure Valley did as well.
They had just witnessed their first girls’ basketball state championship in school history and it was something that they had longed for. They had been to the tournament before, in fact this was the third straight year the team had qualified, but they had bowed out to the Century Diamondbacks in each of those two years, so beating that team in this year’s finals 50-46 on Saturday was oh so sweet.
The Lady Broncos had made the semifinals once before, back in 2005, when current coach Raimee Odum was a budding sophomore superstar and scoring champion, but this was the first finals they had been to and they had done it with a young roster, starting four juniors and a sophomore and only having three seniors on the squad.
This had proven to be a long and winding road in a pandemic filled trip in 2021.
It all began back in June, when it was announced that Raimee Odum was signed to take over the program and she began the process of selecting just the right coaches to assist her in putting the team together.
The job may have been made tougher when it was announced that three-year starter and all-conference and all-state performer Tenleigh Smith was not returning to the program and had applied for a transfer to Century, along with younger sister Taylor.
The team had also lost a pair of seniors who were accepting scholarships to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. Both Kristen Thomas and Gracie Anderson were enrolled and gone, meaning the Blackfoot program had lost three of its starters, leaving only Isabelle Arave and Hadley Humphreys to carry the torch forward for the 2020-21 season.
The work began immediately, with summer basketball and clinics and eventually tryouts, all of which raised eyebrows and the usual conversations that circulate around a high profile program such as basketball or football or the like. It was not something that was not normal, it was just the way things are, especially in a small town.
By the time the season started, there was a lot of speculation as to what kind of a team the Lady Broncos were going to be, but when the first game rolled around against Madison on the road, the Lady Broncos eased a lot of minds with a gritty win over the 5A Bobcats in Rexburg.
There were concerns when games two and three rolled around, both losses, and the one that shocked people where that they lost to Century by the score of 43-16! That just couldn’t be, what had happened to the beloved Lady Broncos? How could they lose to a team that had two former Lady Broncos on the team. What was wrong?
“It really showed us as coaches that we had a lot of work to do,” Odum said. “Not only did we have work to do, but he players did as well. We preached to them that it started with practice and it started with changing the culture of this team. Culture trumps talent every time became the motto that we lived each day at practice by and the team lives it to this day.”
Changing culture is not that easy, because it takes each player on the team to buy into the philosophy and part of it meant the players had to be willing to accept different roles within the team to make it stronger and better and the better players had to be willing to give up some of their stats in order to make the other players better and stronger as the season went along.
One by one, the players began working to build a strong unit. Sure, there were bumps along the way, but soon the Lady Broncos had their identities in place.
The post players were Hadley Humpherys and Kianna Wright and they were rotating whether they set up in the low post or the high post and that began to cause the opponents to double team up high when Humpherys was there and the team began work on how to get the ball down low to Wright and then further adjustments occurred to make sure that sub Tylar Dalley was worked into the mix. Arave and Prairie Caldwell were the guards, and it was another adjustment as to who was going to be the point and who was going to be the shooting guard and the odd wheel ended up being Esperanza Vergara, only a sophomore, and how she was going to fit in.
Vergara exploded one game with a handful of three-pointers and as she worked on her ball handling, she became more and more of a weapon for the team. Vergara was soon driving the basketball into the middle and getting layups and exploded for a 20-point game and things were beginning to fall into place.
The changes didn’t come without more hard work and practice and flexibility by the team and when Blackfoot lost to Rigby the first week of December, many wrote the team off because they were 3-3 and hadn’t even reached the tough part of the schedule, the High Country Conference regular season.
That is when things started to click for the Lady Broncos. They reeled off seven straight wins, making their record 10-3 on the year and all of the work that the team and coaches had put into practice was showing up on the floor and the confidence level of the girls was gaining momentum and they were working like a unit, a team, where in years gone by, there had been bickering and fighting among the players over every little thing.
They shrugged off the loss to Rigby and began another winning streak and were ready to face Skyline for the second time of the season. It was to be a battle for the top spot in the High Country Conference and a possible high ranking in the state polls. After all, it was the third week in January and the district tournament was just around the corner and it was time to get serious.
“We really wanted to win that game because it would set us apart from all the other teams in our area,” Odum said. “The girls wanted it, the coaches wanted it, the fans expected it. The Grizzlies wanted it as well, maybe more than we did as they were a little more prepared and a lot more experienced than we were.”
Skyline also had Mattie Olsen and the junior guard was more than the Lady Broncos were ready for and she was the difference. There was something new for the Lady Broncos to learn and that was how to handle somebody who could do it all on the floor. Things would be different next time around and the Lady Broncos would be ready for the rematch.
They seemed to have things figured out and in the District 6 tournament, the two teams would square off and it was a battle and in the final seconds, the two teams were tied when Olsen would do her damage once again. The Lady Broncos thought they had solved the matter, but when they took the lead in the late stages, they were forced into a turnover that the Grizzlies soon negated and the Lady Broncos got the ball and took a lot of the time off the clock, called a timeout to set up a play and promptly ran into Olsen once again. She forced a turnover with seven seconds remaining, and then took the inbounds pass and sped down the floor. She put up a shot in front of the basket and as the buzzer sounded, the ball fell through the basket for a heartbreaking loss for the Broncos, 51-49. It cost the Broncos the district title and forced the Lady Broncos into a state play-in game against Nampa.
It was no contest for the team from Blackfoot, who had learned another lesson during this year of education, that was how to shake off a tough defeat and bring it back even harder and tougher than before.
They trounced the Nampa Bulldogs by 23 points, punching their ticket to the 2021 state 4A championships and a first round date with Skyline, the sixth time they would face off against each other this season.
They talked it over as coaches and came up with a game plan and it worked to perfection.
The Grizzlies double-teamed Humphreys from the start and that left Kianna Wright alone and she made 9 of 13 shots, scoring 20 points to lead the Lady Broncos. Arave chipped in with 10 and Humpherys did her part with 17 rebounds, snaring every board that came her way as the Blackfoot girls took the lead early on and opened up a double digit lead entering the fourth period and pretty much coasted from there to down the Grizzlies by the final of 48-40, earning a spot in the semifinals against Burley. In the process, Mattie Olsen was held to 13 points and sent to the consolation side of the bracket.
The Lady Broncos didn’t have time to celebrate, they had to get ready for a tough team in the Burley Bobcats.
Burley had built a strong resume and had an all-state player in their point guard Amari Whiting, who could score and facilitate the offense and had been receiving a ton of inquires and offers from a number of Division I schools.
They challenged Isabelle Arave with the job of guarding her every single second of the game and Arave responded as the two point guards went at each other from the first minute. Both played 32 minutes of the game, toe to toe and nose to nose, and although Whiting scored 14 points, her shooting was down, she was limited to a single assist and she was hounded at every turn. Arave was the player of the game as named by IdahoSports.com and the Lady Broncos were on their way to their first finals appearance ever, 47-30. It was simply that the Lady Broncos had developed into a better team and were playing at a very high level.
That brought the team to the finals against inter conference rival Century, who had bested the Lady Broncos on two occasions this season, but the Blackfoot team was a different team from those two meetings and ready to show it.
Century jumped out to an early lead, but when the Lady Broncos rallied behind a pair of three-point baskets, the first quarter would end 10-8, in favor of Century.
The game was a battle from that point on as the teams would trade baskets like the whole world depending on it and for these two teams, that is exactly what was going on. Every possession was contested, usually from the midcourt line to the basket, but at times, from the baseline to the baseline.
The crowd was into the contest as well, both sets of fans having their opinions as to the validity of each and every call that was made or in some instances were not made. It all depended upon the view and which team the fan in question may have seen.
The players weren’t having any of it and they kept at it and they were playing it tough as nails. They were toe to toe and nose to nose for 32 minutes of basketball.
As it turned out, the Broncos had chosen to play “Iron Man” basketball and originally planned for all five starters to play the entire 32-minute contest in order to make a statement to Century. As it turned out, only three of the Blackfoot starters played the entire game — Prairie Caldwell, who was the game’s MVP, scored 14 points, including 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to seal the deal; Isabelle Arave, who was tasked with the job of defending former teammate Tenleigh Smith and shut her down, limiting her to 1 of 8 shooting from the field; and Kianna Wright, who tackled both Taylor Smith and Taylor Bull at different times and pretty well shut the two of them down for the contest.
Hadley Humphreys had a total of 3 minutes of the 32 on the bench and only then because of foul trouble and Esperanza Vergara had less than three minutes of the game on the bench while Odum explained what she wanted Vergara to do in certain defensive sets.
“We talked about it with the team and presented them with the idea of playing the whole game several weeks ago and we worked on conditioning to allow for it,” Odum said. “The girls all wanted to do that and nobody on the team complained or was disgruntled about it. That tells you a lot about this team, they have each other’s back and they all want what is best for the team and we all thought that this was our best chance to win.”
Everything about this game was just as you would expect that it might be, tight from the start to the finish, just like you would expect a title game to be. There were nine lead changes, five ties, and the major runs, one by each team, revealed that Century make a single run of 6-0 against Blackfoot and the Lady Broncos made a 10-3 run against Century that offset the good start the Diamondbacks were able to have in the first quarter. The largest lead in the game was seven points, when Century led 15-8 midway through the second quarter. It was an epic contest to say the least.
This team is built to last and last for several years. The Lady Broncos started four juniors and a sophomore and the majority of the bench role players are all freshmen and sophomores, including the sixth man in Marlee Pieper, but they also have junior Madalyn Foster, and Megan Evans, Whitney Christiansen, Riley Layton waiting for their time to shine as a Lady Bronco.
This is going to be a fun team for a number of years and with Odum and her assistant coaches on the bench all expected to come back, this could be the start of a dynasty that will only continue to spark interest from the community.
This team also just makes that relationship better as they seem to enjoy giving back to the community as well.
This is a very good team that could become one of the greats and will definitely be the team to beat next year and maybe even for years to come.