VERMILLION, S.D. | Battle tested is a good way to describe the Vermillion squad that’s making a second straight Class A state girls basketball tournament appearance.
Career scoring leader Haleigh Melstad is among the veterans for the seventh-seeded Tanagers, who will take a 19-5 record into Thursday night’s 7:45 game against four-time defending champion St. Thomas More (21-4) at the Watertown Civic Center.
Melstad, a 5-foot-9 senior guard and returning first-team all-state selection, averages 16.5 points and 4.5 rebounds for Vermillion, a fourth-place finisher at last year’s state tournament. Classmates Kasey Jensen (10.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), a 5-10 forward/center and 5-8 senior guard Madisen Martinez (7.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg) also return as starters while three others experienced state tournament action for last year’s 18-8 squad.
“A lot of our girls played last year which helps a lot,” said fifth-year Vermillion Coach Jon Brooks. “You could see it this year in postseason games. The girls were in situations before and they weren’t really rattled. Last year, we had to get through the first quarter until we were settled down. It’s nice to have a veteran group.
“Our girls are as confident as ever. We played well down the stretch in our conference and non-conference games. We are battle tested. Right now, it’s about putting together one game at a time.”
Winners of four straight, Vermillion bounced back from two losses to state-ranked teams, Dakota XII Conference rival Dakota Valley and Le Mars, which last week advanced to the Iowa Class 4A state tournament semifinals.
Melstad, Vermillion’s all-time leader with 1,689 points, 245 steals and 254 3-point field goals, hit five 3-pointers in a 51-48 win over Dell Rapids, a victory that generated the school’s eighth state tournament berth. She is the team’s runaway leader with 68 3-point field goals, hitting 39.5 percent of those shots.
“She put in a lot of time over the offseason,” said Brooks. “I like her chances when she is on the 3-point line and if she’s in a good rhythm. She has developed a much better game in the post. Look for her in the offensive end because she can score in bunches.”
Melstad is also a quality defensive player with a team-high 61 steals. The Vermillion defense yields an average of 40.6 points per game.
Jensen is not only Vermillion’s rebounding leader. She makes the team’s motion offense go with her team-high 46 assists and defensively, has provided a team-best 16 blocked shots.
Martinez, a three-year starter, has 46 steals for a defense that has held 11 opponents to 40 or less points. Rounding off the starting lineup is 5-5 freshman guard Lexi Plitzuweit (6.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 15 3-point field goals, 37 assists, 37 steals) and 5-5 senior guard Emily Bye (2.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 23 assists, 30 steals).
Off the bench, 6-foot junior post Kasey Herbster (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is shooting 53.8 percent. Herbster has also been a spark defensively with 33 steals and 13 blocked shots.
Two others also see action as reserves – 5-5 sophomore Lexi Saunders (2.2 ppg, 10 3-point field goals, 22 steals) and 5-8 junior Rachel Brady (2.0 ppg, 12 steals).
“We don’t run a lot of sets,” said Brooks. “All five girls handle the ball, rebound and push the ball up the floor. Everyone gets an open look. Everyone looks to get each other a shot.
“We implemented this offense three or four years ago. All of the girls have certain roles. They know how to read and how to cut. The girls are really comfortable with it.”