Note: This is the second of a two-part series previewing Tuesday’s 5A District 5-6 tournament championship game between Thunder Ridge and Rigby. This part is from Rigby’s perspective of the series.
Brooke Donnelly and her Rigby team can only be sure of so much when it comes to playing Thunder Ridge. The teams are too even, too skilled, too prolific. The Trojans have owned this short series, but nuance reveals that so little separates these teams that you can’t feel certain about much.
Around this time last year, after Rigby knocked off Thunder Ridge for the 5A District 5-6 district title, Donnelly felt sure the teams would meet in the district championship game again in 2021.
Her hunch came to fruition. At 7 p.m. Tuesday night, No. 1 Rigby will host No. 2 Thunder Ridge for the district championship. It’s a rematch of a rivalry game. Winner goes to state.
The loser can still earn a state bid with a win on Thursday, but like the nature of this series, that is not promised.
“I knew Thunder Ridge would be a really good team,” Donnelly said. “I knew they were someone we were going to have to really practice hard for.”
Rigby has dominated this matchup. The Trojans are 9-0 against the Titans. That includes a couple blowouts in 2018, when Thunder Ridge’s school first opened and it was still finding its identity, but otherwise, these games have been close.
Excluding that first season, only two have been decided by double digits. Rigby’s average margin of victory is just 6.5 points.
This season, the Trojan have won the two meetings 51-44 and 65-60. Last season the scores were 61-51, 59-55, 49-48, 68-56 in the district title game.
Rigby and Thunder Ridge represent two of the best teams in the state at the 5A classification or otherwise. They know each other well, too, which adds another dimension of difficulty to each matchup.
Still, the Trojans have earned nine straight wins, escaping with victories time and time again.
“I just remember it was so intense last year,” Rigby head coach Troy Shippen said of the championship game. “The whole game. It was loud, the gym was loud. We had a full crowd. It was just really competitive.”
To be so competitive, Rigby relies on a few players. Tylie Jones is the key cog, setting everything into motion for a Trojan team that relies on her scoring punch and rangy defense. Donnelly spaces the floor with long-range sharpshooting that makes defenders hesitant to help off their matchups. Hadley Good supplies another scoring source and Naomi Nunez tends to solidify the lineups she plays with.
Together, they have never lost to Thunder Ridge, though each clash feels more like a postseason meeting considering the level of basketball they’re playing at.
“I think what has led to our success in the past is our defense, and we’re also very team-oriented,” Jones said. “Coach emphasizes defense a lot. So we work on that a lot. That’s what’s helped us, our solid defense.”
What makes Tuesday’s matchup so intriguing is that Thunder Ridge will test that Rigby defense.
Lauren Davenport and Paige Clark spearhead the Titans’ offensive attack, but guards Kennedy Stenquist and Sierra John represent undersized threats who can get to the rim and hit from distance. Aspen Caldwell bolsters her team with cerebral defense and can handle the basketball.
To limit their production, there’s one matchup tougher than the rest.
“She shoots really well, and she’s tall,” Shippen said of Davenport, a Boston signee. “She shoots pull-up 3s, she shoots from long range. Handles the ball really well. She’s not just a pure shooter, she can drive. She does a lot of things ... so when she’s got the ball, we’re all on our toes, ready to help on her.”
Defending Clark represents a challenge in different ways.
“We have to keep her away from the basket. Don’t let her get close to the basket,” Shippen said. “Plus, she’s developed a 3-point shot, so she can shoot too. People don’t talk about that. She doesn’t shoot very much but she can shoot.”
To different extents, most every Titan can shoot. Davenport and Stenquist are the more obvious ones, but Clark and Caldwell don’t hesitate to let it fly, nor does John.
Those are threats enough, but it also highlights that the Trojans will have to stay in front of their matchups. If not, teammates can’t always help because their matchup likely can shoot.
“Even the bench, when they come in, they can shoot,” Shippen said. “That makes a team really tough.”
Still, Rigby has managed that challenge to nine good results. To earn a district title and automatic bid to state, the Trojans will have to make it 10.
“I just think we’ve been practicing really hard, preparing a lot,” Donnelly said. “Coach Shippen really prepares us really well for these games. It’s going to be a tough game. They’re a really good team.”