Winning the 2A State Girls Basketball championship this weekend was no ordinary achievement for the Sundance Lady Bulldogs. Not only did it double this year’s tally, alongside their state volleyball title in November, it was also a first for the county.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a basketball championship in Crook County, boys or girls. It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” says Molly O’Connor, senior.
“The volleyball win helped our confidence, I think, because we knew we could do it and we had that mindset and gave it all we had.”
You always know there’s a chance, agrees senior Teila McInerney.
“We went in at number one from regionals, which was definitely a confidence booster, and then we got to working and it was like…why not us?” says McInerney.
“At the beginning of the year, before we won the volleyball, I was talking with my dad and I said, we’ve got a shot at both.”
When the team did win the volleyball championship, she figured, why not try for the basketball, too? But on the day, the Bulldogs came within a whisker of missing out.
“I had two free throws to win it and I missed both of them, so it was a little nerve wracking, but in overtime we dominated it. They came out a little tentative, but we’ve been in so many close games this year that we were used to it,” McInerney says. “You’ve just got to go out and play basketball.”
But while the girls were able to get over their nerves and play on after Wyoming Indian also missed their shot, the audience wasn’t quite so lucky.
“It was those of us sitting on the sidelines that were nervous,” Coach Sheryl O’Connor laughs. “It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, just that we couldn’t do anything other than watch.”
McInerney smiles as she recalls watching videos of the game after it was all over and saw the looks on all the faces in the bleachers. “You could see the tension,” she says.
As something both girls have been working towards throughout their high school careers, nailing the win in their senior year has them walking on air. The team kept improving as the weeks went by and never once regressed, says O’Connor.
“As the year progressed, we just got better and I feel like we peaked at the right time,” agrees McInerney.
Coach O’Connor says she would never have envisioned this moment as the year began.
“I just didn’t know because we had so many unknowns, but they got better and better and better, and they got even better at the right times, and we kept winning by just enough all the time and pretty soon we’d gone through a season with 20 wins in a row,” she says.
McInerney’s sister and fellow player was among the first to point out that the Lady Bulldogs have now set the bar as high as it can possibly go.
“Rigan said, I have to win two championships my senior year,” McInerney says. “I said, really? And she said, yeah, there’s nowhere to go but down from here!”
The improvement that took the girls all the way to state didn’t just happen by accident, of course. For both McInerney and O’Connor, it’s been a long process of absolute dedication that started back in elementary school.
“In elementary, we were on the playground and in summer rec we would be in basketball,” says O’Connor.
“When it got warm enough to play basketball, we would play it. In P.E. we were playing it,” continues McInerney.
In high school, they doubled down and made sure to stay in peak condition and ready for the season.
“We weight lifted all through the summer and, especially this summer, we went and played almost every weekend down in Denver, playing basketball for the Power 2 Play League down there,” says McInerney.
“Almost every week we had an open gym, so we were playing basketball basically all year long.”
The girls also stay active in other ways, adds O’Connor – running and exercising to stay in shape. It dominates their time, but both are adamant that it’s well worth the effort, and has been since they first began to practice in an organized way back in third grade.
It’s a family affair for both girls, whose sisters also play or played both games. The win was an emotional moment for all of them.
“They got excited for everything,” says McInerney of her own family. “When we started out as freshman we were, to put it mildly, not successful. For the progression all the way up to senior year, when we started just winning games, they got excited, so the atmosphere really helped.”
Things may have been rough in both sports when the girls were freshmen, but both girls shake their heads adamantly at the idea of having ever considered giving up.
“I like the team aspect of it; hanging out with your friends. We were talking about this on the bus: that’s what we do, go to games and practice and stuff. If we weren’t doing that, we wouldn’t have friends, we would all be a bunch of losers. They are our people,” O’Connor jokes.
McInerney’s eyes light up as she elaborates, talking about the guidance the two seniors have offered the younger members of the team, showing them how to improve and watching that advice put into practice.
“The progression is really fun, to watch yourself get better and watch other people get better. You feel a sense of accomplishment,” she says.
“We started out with a young team and you watch our young freshmen and to get to see them get better and be able to help them is super rewarding.”
On behalf of the Lady Bulldogs, McInerney offers thanks to the coaches, families and the community that turned out to support them through the final stretch.
“When they came down, it was unbelievable,” she says. “We played against a team in the championship where normally their fans show up – and our fans showed up. A big thank you for that.”
Coach O’Connor also thanks the community for attending, watching online, leaving comments and generally supporting the girls on their journey to unprecedented success.
By Sarah Pridgeon