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4A Girls Semifinals

Thunder Basin's Jersie Taylor looks to pass the ball during the Bolts' semifinal game against Cheyenne East in last year's Wyoming State High School Class 4A Girls Basketball Championships.

A weekend off may have been the best thing Thunder Basin and head coach Braidi Lutgen hoped for. Not many teams in Wyoming wish for a break so early in the season while their peers compete in annual tournaments, affording them multiple games in a weekend, but that’s exactly how the first week of 2019 unfolded for the Bolts.

Through the first month of the season Thunder Basin is 8-1, the best record of any Class 4A girls team. And they did it all while cutting their teeth against out-of-state competition in Arizona, as well as the hometown Energy Classic. In other words, the Bolts look good.

But those results have come with a price. Both of the Bolts’ returning all-state players — Jersie Taylor and Madi Miller — are currently sidelined. So too is sophomore role player Breckyn Hamlin.

Taylor played the last few weeks with a broken wrist — consisting of a compound fracture. No one was aware of the severity of the injury until a recent X-ray. She’s scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday.

Hamlin was initially cleared to play through lingering back discomfort until Lutgen kept her from practicing because of the visible pain the sophomore was in. After a recent doctor’s visit she’ll spend the next six weeks in a back brace. Miller’s in possibly the best shape of any, despite her swollen ankle. Lutgen said Miller’s status is dependent on progress but didn’t rule out the senior playing against Lyman and Star Valley this weekend.

“We’re a bit injury-laden, at the moment,” Lutgen said.

Those injuries allow one of the Bolts’ strengths, a deep bench, to shine. So far 12 Bolts have accrued stats, with seven girls having played in all nine games. That’s allowed the second-year program to be successful with its up-tempo offense.

Payton McGrath, Sydney Solem and Shelby Tarter have provided valuable minutes off the bench. Tarter averages 6.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, Solem adds 6.1 points and 5.2 rebounds of her own, while McGrath averages 5.7 points and leads the team with 10 made 3-pointers.

“We have strong players and I have faith in our bench,” Lutgen said, “and with our injuries people will be able to come in and play a bigger role.”

Tarter’s emergence of late has been undeniable. In a victory over Class 3A Douglas, which was on a 32-game win streak, the senior hit three 3s in the third quarter to turn a one-point halftime deficit into a 17-point lead going into the fourth quarter. That helped the Bolts adjust their game to how it was being called.

The Bolts had been used to the faster, more lenient games in Arizona and returned to find a stricter, yet consistent, game. Getting into the bonus halfway through the first quarter slowed the pace of the game, which benefited Douglas and caused the Bolts to make halftime adjustments. Not helping matters, the Bolts shot 11 percent from the floor.

It was near then that Rigan McInerney, a transfer from Sundance who started the season on the bench while adjusting to the speed of 4A play, took over for the injured Miller. She’s emerged to lead the team with 6.8 rebounds per game and continues to progress.

“I’ve been pushing her a lot because I know it’s there,” Lutgen said. “She’s doing great and she’s buying in and she’s extremely coachable.”

Sure, the Bolts retain myriad talent through all of the injuries. They’ve also had to rely on a newfound maturity to get through these testing times. Lutgen wasn’t able to implement her style of multiple defenses last year because the Bolts were transfixed on the other aspects of the game. This year, the head coach believes they can handle all those looks.

“We had no varsity experience last year,” she said. “We practiced, cut our teeth and we worked on those things in practice.”

All of the Bolts’ walking wounded — provided there’s no more setbacks — are expected to be back on the court in time for regionals. That includes Taylor, the team’s leading scorer with 12.8 points per game whose timetable stands at five-to-six weeks.

Thunder Basin’s maturity and depth could be tested in the coming weeks. Those two aspects just happen to be where they’ve shown their strength so far.

“It’s time for us to start shooting well and I’m hoping we make better shots, shot selections,” Lutgen said. “We had to compete and grit last year and I’m hoping to do it again.”

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Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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