whitehall vs jefferson

Jefferson's Rachel Van Blaricom drives past Whitehall defenders last season in Whitehall.

BUTTE — Class B basketball and volleyball fans around Montana have likely heard the name Rachel Van Blaricom by now.

She’s the leading scorer for the No. 1 Jefferson girls basketball team that competes in the loaded Southern B, averaging nearly 14 points per game,.

The undefeated Panthers (9-0) have lofty expectations and Van Blaricom is often the focal point of opposing defenses. But Jefferson coach Sarah Layng has noticed a calmness this season that Van Blaricom lacked in the past.

“She's playing now, I think, probably a lot more relaxed and confident than her earlier years,” said the third-year Panthers head coach. “Her freshmen and sophomore years, probably, I think she felt some pressure and different things, especially being so young and being in the starting role. I think she's moving along and I think she's playing a lot more relaxed now than she was, just because she's older, she's more confident and she trusts herself a lot more.”

Van Blaricom, who recently committed to MSU-Northern, pointed out that having a clearer idea of her future has helped her relax.

“(In the past) I would be worried about personal statistics because I was worried about what the colleges are looking at, because they only see like box scores and stuff,” Van Blaricom said. “So you kind of worry about it more when you're looking for a college, but I already know where I'm going. So there's no need to stress about it. And it's actually been really fun.”

A two-time all-state basketball selection, Van Blaricom also eclipsed 1,000 career points this season. While scoring points is nothing new for the third-year varsity starter, she said that it was a fun to be able to share the moment with her family, friends and team mates.

Entering Jefferson’s Jan. 6 game against Twin Bridges, Van Blaricom sat at 999 career points. A second-quarter free throw pushed her into quadruple digits.

“Everybody stood up and then my coach called timeout, and the announcer said that I reached 1,000 points,” Van Blaricom said. “It was really sweet and my friends had made some signs that said, ‘Welcome to 1,000-point club, Rachel.’ And it was just one of the most fun moments in my high school career.”

Van Blaricom, who lived in Butte before moving to Clancy just before 8th grade, said that she didn’t expect to land at MSU-Northern when she began talking to colleges. In her mind at the beginning of the process, she figured she’d end up at Montana Western, Montana Tech or MSU-Billings.

But when she visited Havre for a Skylights’ basketball game against University of Providence, Van Blaricom said the campus, coaches and players won her over.

“I couldn't really find anything wrong with it,” she said. “So why continue to worry about college if I know pretty much exactly where I want to go?”

Van Blaricom plans to major in biology, or a similar science that will provide a pathway to veterinary school. Her desire to become a vet stems from her love of animals she has grown up with. Van Blaricom rode horses during her childhood, but says she has an especially soft spot in her heart for dogs.

“I absolutely love dogs,” she said. “And I enjoy helping anyone with everything pretty much, so I thought that being a vet would be really good for me because I get to be around what I adore.”

Layng echoed that Van Blaricom’s helpful nature is one of her defining characteristics.

“She'll help people that she doesn't even know,” the Panthers coach said. “She'll look out for them or try to help them or talk to them. I think she's sociable, and she genuinely cares about people.”

Who she is as a person off the court has helped make her a leader on the court.

“I think she's always very positive and does a great job encouraging teammates,” Layng said. “She'll partner up with some brand new freshmen without even thinking about it. She's vocal, too. If somebody’s making a mistake or they're not sure what to do, she goes over and helps them out without even being taught the unasked or anything.”

Layng, who has coached Van Blaricom since Layng was an assistant coach in 2018 when Van Blaricom was a freshman, pointed out that what makes the 2021-22 Panthers so dangerous is the fact that a number of players are capable of getting a bucket and have the confidence to do so.

“We have on any given night up to seven players, really, that can score pretty consistently,” Layng said. “Overall we've been really focused on our team unity and our chemistry. I think there's a lot of trust within teammates, and there's not one person feels like they have to do a lot of the scoring. So I think with that they are playing a lot more relaxed, and they can trust their basketball instincts in a positive way.”

Building an environment of trust and confidence throughout an entire roster takes strong leaders, and Van Blaricom has become comfortable filling that role.

“Sophomore year was definitely my hardest year,” she said. “But I do think that I've been in that leadership role for a while so I'm kind of used to it.”

Perhaps the piece that puts Jefferson over the top this season is the addition of Brynna Wolfe, a 2021 all-state selection from Whitehall.

“Having Brynna here also helps with leadership,” Van Blaricom said. “She's also a very good leader and she just helps tackle the role.”

Van Blaricom and Wolfe were already familiar with each other after playing multiple summers of AAU together.

“It's one thing to have a really good player join your team as like a wing or a post,” Van Blaricom said. “But she's like a true point guard. And I was so excited to have her on our team this year because she's good at looking up the court, she shares the ball well and she can shoot lights out if you need her to. She can shoot from anywhere on the floor and she can drive. She's just an all-around a great player.”

With an imposing lineup with Van Blaricom, Wolfe, Cia Stuber and the rest of a stellar supporting cast, Jefferson figures to be hanging around deep into the postseason. And with a recent comeback road win over defending champ Big Timber, the Panthers proved that they are indeed for real.

Matthew Kiewiet is the sports editor for the Montana Standard and sports betting columnist for 406MTSports. Email him at matthew.kiewiet@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter @mattkiewiet406.

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