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Sarah Layng instructs senior Laurynn Armstrong during practice Dec. 6.

It was just before Districts last year when Rachel Van Blaricom lost her mojo.

She can’t, or won’t, completely explain it, but she says she suddenly lost confidence in her decision-making. “I started rethinking things.” At times, she imagined she was hogging the ball – so she’d pass when she might have taken the shot. Then, she’d overthink that: “Sometimes, I get stuck on one play, then I keep making mistakes.”

So it was that Van Blaricom, who had averaged 15.9 points through the regular season, settled for nine in the Panthers’ District 5B tournament opener against Sweet Grass County, then just seven in the season-ending consolation-bracket loss to Broadwater.

Here’s the thing, though: All this played out in Van Blaricom’s first year of high school ball. As a freshman, she was the Panthers’ floor leader and top scorer – a skilled passer and outside shooter who’s also confident driving inside. That she was a first-team all-conference pick surprised no one.

So, like, there’s hope.

It will fall to Sarah Layng to build around Van Blaricom and a strong core of players returning from last year’s 8-10 team. Layng is no newcomer to JHS, or to basketball: She played under her dad, coach Dick Norden, from 1988 to 1992. She returned to Boulder seven years ago with her husband, head football coach Clint Layng, and began working with the girls’ hoops squad – first as a volunteer, then as a paid assistant.

Oh, and before coming back to JHS, she was head coach for nine years at Division C Sheridan High. So, she’s done this before.

But, “I’ve never had a team this deep,” Layng says. “It’s a really competitive group. They want to get better, and they’ll push each other.”

Besides Van Blaricom, there’s 5’9” senior Grace Jones in the post; point guard Ashton Oxarart; and wings Mykala Edmisten and Laurynn Armstrong. Emma Grange, a transfer from Philipsburg, adds depth at guard, and sophomore Dakota Edmisten is a deadly outside shooter.

Add in a few other promising younger players, and “the potential is great for having a strong program for several years,” Layng says. “I’m excited about that.”

Don’t expect big changes for this year’s Lady Panthers: Layng says, “I’m not a coach that tries to trick people. Right now, we’re focusing on the fundamentals, and knowing the formations. It’s just about understanding the game, and preparing the girls for different situations.”

Ultimately, though, much of the Panthers’ success will hinge on 5’9” (in shoes, she says) Van Blaricom, already a college prospect who last summer was the youngest player selected to join the Montana Club Sport Elite team by Carroll College head coach Rachelle Sayers. “She has a huge upside,” Sayers said by email.

Van Blaricom’s parents, both of whom played basketball, guided her into the sport in third grade. Back then, the family lived in Butte but spent winters in Arizona, which is where Rachel learned the game. Though home-schooled, she played with Emerson Elementary, which won a Butte city championship; and played on a successful club team before arriving at JHS.

She also played soccer, which she says she loved. But in eighth grade, she partially tore a ligament in her right ankle, and she developed stress fractures and bone chips from overuse. One doctor told her she might not make it to senior year. “That was very scary,” she says now.

Van Blaricom abandoned soccer, took up volleyball instead, and keeps her ankle wrapped tightly. (She admits she’s not always diligent about the exercises meant to keep the joint strong – but her mom, Desiree Van Blaricom, is a physical therapist who keeps her focused, more or less.)

And she’s working on thinking less, forgetting the last play, and rebuilding her confidence. Carroll’s Sayers notes that, after her stellar freshman year, Van Blaricom will face added pressure from opposing teams. “She will be keyed on in high school, and that will only help her develop other skills that will help her continue to progress as a player.”

Layng is looking forward to that. “She’s a phenomenal athlete,” Layng says. “But what really separates her is her work ethic, her tenacity. She only has one speed, and that’s going hard.”

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