New Richmond – The Wyoming East girls basketball program has featured an eventual pair of Division I players, an eventual pair of Division II starters and two eventual Division II National Champions – all at the same time.
Though their primes didn’t all come during that 2017-18 season and injuries played a part, the one thing all six of those players – Gabby Lupardus, Emily Saunders, Jazz Blankenship, Kara Sandy, Sarah Saunders and Skylar Davidson – don’t have is a second state championship ring.
The program has won state titles in 2016 and 2021, but neither team featured any of the same players.
This year’s senior class of Laken Toler, Kayley Bane, Abby Russell and Colleen Lookabill has the opportunity to do what none of their predecessors have been able to – win two state championships during their tenure.
The latter three were key parts of the 2021 title run with Russell earning first-team all-state and all-tournament honors while Lookabill and Bane were important rotational players. Lookabill and Bane became starers last season and Russell, who returned from an ACL injury in January, served as the team’s sixth man during the Lady Warriors’ journey back to the Class AA state title game where they fell 67-35 to Parkersburg Catholic.
With one last chance to become the first senior class with two state championship rings, they grasp the gravity of such an accomplishment, acknowledging how difficult it is having watched their predecessors fail to reach that height.
“That’s our goal this year,” Russell said. “We know what it takes to get there and most importantly we need to build trust within the team. Everybody has to push each other to be the best they can be.”
“Of course,” Bane said. “Anybody who has a chance is going to pursue that. Just like Sky, and Gabby and Sarah (Saunders) they had good teams to do it but things happen and that’s okay. We have that same opportunity and if we don’t keep our eyes on the goal then things are going to go south for us. I’m pretty sure this season we’re going to overcome that.”
This team has many of the same advantages their predecessors had from an experience standpoint. They’ve been to a pair of title games feeling the highs and lows of the final result. The 2021 title game was won with this group serving as a supporting cast for Skylar Davidson. They carved out new roles and found their footing last season, making a run of their own to the title game. Bane earned first-team all-state honors and Russell was a second-teamer despite the injury.
Still they watched from the bench in the waning minutes of last season’s title game as Parkersburg Catholic took out 10 months of frustration on them, ensuring the outcome was never in doubt after halftime. It set the tone for this past offseason.
“It refocuses us because over the summer we want to get better,” Russell said. “We want to get back there and never lose like that again. We focus on practice so we’re getting better over time.”
“We have kept that in the back of our minds and it was an embarrassment,” Bane said. “Getting beat by 30 points when you know you’re better, it’s a shock to anybody who knows this team and knows how we play. We usually are the department of defense and we came up short. That has motivated us and we know we’re better than that.”
The group has an extensive amount of experience to draw upon. Russell was pressed into starting duty as a freshman because of the graduation of four starters from the 2018 squad while Bane and Lookabill rotated in. Being thrown into the fire early wasn’t easy and they had to grow to maintain the standard.
“We learned to communicate,” Lookabill said. “We can trust each other now. And even if little things do happen, we know each other are there. We all talk so now we’ve gotten closer.”
Last year’s run to the title game wasn’t completely unexpected but there were kinks to work out along the way. For starters the only returning starters from the 2021 title team were the now graduated Hannah Blankenship and Russell but Russell was sidelined for the first six weeks.
It put more of the pressure on Bane and Lookabill as well as then sophomore Maddie Clark to help the team find its footing during a reload and they did. Watching Lupardus and Co. as well as playing with Davidson prepared them for their new roles.
“Me and Abby and Colleen, we were always in rotation or first off the bench and Abby got to start,” Bane said. “That gave us a lot of experience because as freshmen we were playing against 18 year olds. That really gave us a focus of what high school basketball’s all about. Being around Sky and Sarah, that really pushed. We saw what they did. Sky made me who I am today.”
With three years of meaningful experience under their belts, the goal is clear for these seniors – win another title. They’re familiar with the effort and work it takes as evidenced by their 2021 run but also know what it feels like to get all the way to the end and fall short.
The biggest pictures that hang outside of the gym at East aren’t individual ones, they’re pictures of teams that have won state championships. These senior hope to put one more big picture on the wall
They’ll always have a special spot in the program’s history for what they’ve already accomplished but making history would be sweeter.
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