BY AARON PATTERSON
Each season since current Armstrong-Potomac girls basketball coach Nick Hipsher has been at the helm, the Trojans have made progress. Most notably, they’ve made progress in what many in the area consider the ultimate stage for bragging rights — the Vermilion County Tournament.
Battling with them year after year, and often standing in there way, has been the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils, who entered this year’s tournament boasting five consecutive titles. But after defeating the Blue Devils 31-27 on Monday, the Trojans put themselves in position to play for this year’s title, and potentially ruined the Blue Devils’ chances of a sixth straight title.
“This was one of our goals at the beginning of the season,” Hipsher said. “Our seniors, we got fourth two years ago, third last year, and we really wanted to compete for a championship this year. We’re one step away from getting to that game, so that’s what we’re really focusing on.”
Bismarck-Henning, which had won 16 straight Vermilion County Tournament games, is still holding onto the possibility of making it to the title game as this year’s tournament is being played in a pool format. But barring an upset against Salt Fork on Wednesday, Armstrong-Potomac put itself in position to fulfill its goals.
The word upset still lingers in the minds of the Trojans, though, as this season has been as unpredictable as any.
“It is a reward (for this year’s improvement), but everybody (knows) it’s anybody’s ballgame,” Armstrong-Potomac senior guard Kirsten Newnum said. “It’s just crazy because we’ve had so many upsets this season (in the conference). You never know what’s going to happen.”
Though the Trojans (13-7 overall) might have been favored over the Blue Devils (7-15) with respect to season records and seeds, they held off Bismarck-Henning in what had the makings of becoming an impressive comeback. Armstrong-Potomac led by as many as nine throughout the contest.
Newnum scored the Trojans’ first four points of the game on the team’s first two shot attempts, and after hoisting her third shot attempt in the second quarter, Armstrong-Potomac held a comfortable 14-5 lead.
Newnum finished the game sharing game-high honors in points with teammate Erika Sieberns at 10 each, and felt the need to step up with the absence of Rachel Miles who is out with an injury. Miles is the team’s leading second-leading scorer and leading rebounder.
Newnum had scored a combined seven points in her previous three games, making her performance on Monday all-the-more impressive as she saw limited playing time. Through three quarters (24 minutes of game time), the starter saw only eight minutes, 10 seconds of game action because of complications from asthma.
“I think she got knocked in the chest when she took that charge,” Hipsher said. “It kind of knocked the wind out of her.
“That’s what you expect from seniors,” he continued, speaking of her effort. “We knew that they were going to play off of her a little bit. They did the first time. We told her she was going to have open shots, and she knocked them down. That’s a senior leader right there.”
Newnum also accounted for five of the Trojans’ 11 steals, but it was the defense of the Blue Devils that helped them rebound from a seemingly insurmountable deficit.
Bismarck-Henning outscored Armstrong-Potomac 11-2 in the first 5:33 of the fourth quarter, and tied the game at 27-27 after trailing for the entire contest.
“We don’t consider ourselves a full-court pressing team, honestly, but we were left with no choice,” Bismarck-Henning coach Mike Stephens said. “I thought prior to us starting to pick up full, (Lindsay) Andrews’ energy and a couple of buckets by her just absolutely got us off our knees a little bit and back into things. Once we went full, first it was (Maddie) Winkler, and then Winkler and (Lexi) Ballard just really knocking stuff loose. That’s just not wanting to lose. Some kids never have that. We’re fortunate that we’ve got a group of kids that don’t want to lose.”
Ballard scored all four of her points in the fourth quarter following turnovers, and the duo each had three steals.
But after realizing the game was slipping from its grasp, Armstrong-Potomac held Bismarck-Henning scoreless for the final 2:27, and scored the game’s final four points on a rebound basket by Sieberns, and a pair of free throws from Newnum.
“I think we just let up and were like, ‘Ok, we’ve got a lead,’” Newnum said. “We just let up a little bit and then we realized, you can’t let up. You’ve got to keep going so we can keep winning.”
Jessica Hall had a team-high eight points and eight rebounds for Bismarck-Henning, while Andrews scored six and had nine boards.
The Blue Devils will await the results of Wednesday’s games to see who their next opponent will be. In the meantime, the Trojans will take on Salt Fork on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. A win will advance them to this year’s championship.
“It feels really, really good, especially because last year we had an upset game and we lost,” Newnum said. “It feels good. We got the bye, so we got to relax when the other teams didn’t get to. We’ve got this game out of the way, so now there’s just one more and we’re there.”