The Rock River girls basketball seniors knew full well the overall history of the program.
Each senior could recite the last year the program played in a state tournament without hesitation.
They were also fully aware of their recent history to make the Class 1A state tournament.
The Lady Longhorns hadn’t earned a trip to a state basketball tournament since 1987, and the current group of seniors had seen their last two seasons end one win from playing for a spot at state.
So, when Rock River — the top seed from the Southeast Region — lost in the 1A East Region semifinals Friday to Upton, they knew they had one more chance to break the nearly three-decades long state tournament drought.
“For us, we knew this was our last year, and we had the talent along with the upcoming freshman to do this,” Rock River senior Jolie Wetstein said. “We wanted it so bad and it was in our minds the whole time that we were going to state. We’d been telling people that we could do it so now it was time to show everyone.”
The Lady Longhorns did just that, beating Midwest 45-32 for a spot in the Class 1A state tournament starting today in Casper.
Rock River plays top-ranked St. Stephens at 6 p.m. today in a quarterfinal game at the Casper Events Center.
For Wetstein and fellow seniors Sierra Stricklin, Taylor Brown and Cali Elliott, the trip to Casper has been four long years in the making, starting out as freshmen trying to help the team any way they could to being the leaders on a team the school and community will remember for a long time.
“The four seniors on the team have been dreaming of (making it to state) ever since we were freshmen,” Stricklin said. “It was a really big deal for us and the school and the community. Everyone is really proud of us and what we’ve done, and it’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time.
“We wanted to prove to the entire state that we deserved to be there and we were one of the top teams in the state.”
Rock River — one of the smallest Class A schools in terms of enrollment — has always played with a chip on its shoulder, according to Lady Longhorns coach Terrance Reese. That was no different this year, despite the team going 15-6 during the regular season.
“When we come out for warm-ups, we only have seven girls, and we see teams sub players three, four at a time against us,” Reese said. “We like being the underdog and that role. We have a bunch of fighters as basketball players and they accepted the challenge to make it to state.”
Stricklin leads the team in scoring this season at 18.2 points a game, which is third in all of Class 1A girls basketball. The senior also averaged 7.1 rebounds a game.
Brown averages 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds, while Wetstein is right behind at 7.4 points and 5.9 rebounds to go with 5.6 assists per game. Wetstein had a huge game in Rock River’s win over Midwest with eight points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and four steals, while Brown led the team in scoring with 14 points.
“I felt like we were going to play really well (against Midwest), and I trusted my teammates that we would find a way to get to state,” Brown said. “We just keep working hard, and that has paid off for us all year.”
Rock River knows the challenge gets much tougher this week with taking on the top-ranked team in the state all season.
St. Stephens (19-1) hasn’t lost since early in the season, carrying a 17-game winning streak into the state tournament.
Rock River didn’t play St. Stephens this season but did get a chance to see the team play during a regular-season tournament. They know the Lady Eagles like an up-tempo game that features a lot of pressing on defense.
“We know we’re going up against the No. 1 team in the state all year, and if we play our game and do the little things that we know how to do, we can beat them and we can win a state championship,” Stricklin said.
Added Wetstein, “If we can slow them down and make them play our speed of basketball, they’re definitely beatable.”
As players prepared for the state tournament this week, they’ve also been besieged with congratulatory messages from students and teachers at the school and the community, from decorating the team’s school lockers to getting care packages for their trip to Casper.
The Lady Longhorns making state has also done something else for the small southeastern Wyoming town.
“The outpouring of support that the girls have received has been really special and has given our community something to rally around,” Reese said. “The girls have given our school and community a good vibe right now.”
Added Wetstein: “We just wanted to show the people in the state that didn’t think we could ever make it to state. We just wanted to tell people that, ‘Rock River was for real, people.’”