Rigan McInerney and Wenett Martin still laugh about that first state championship. Not the one from early November where they shared tears because Thunder Basin’s furious rally from 2-0 down fell short in the fifth set, the one years prior. When they weren’t a team.
It was 2016 and the school they now represent hadn’t begun its existence. Martin developed the Wright Panthers into a perennial Class 2A power, having already won back-to-back state championships. For a potential third Wright needed to beat Northeast Wyoming rival Sundance, and its talented group of young starlets.
Wright had already swept Sundance twice that season. So the Panthers did it once more in three convincing sets.
“That was a tough one to lose,” McInerney remembered. She can laugh about that now. It wasn’t so funny when she was a promising freshman that fell short.
They first met as adversaries. Two volleyball lovers in separate 2A towns destined to combat each other. Through that rivalry came mutual respect, and when the stars aligned, a chance to unite. When McInerney’s senior volleyball season ended last month the two shared tears, bonded forever.
They couldn’t have gotten this far without each other.
Trust and consistency among coaches goes a long way. That’s partly why Wright became the volleyball power it is now under Martin. While she was at Wright she retained the same assistant coaches down through junior high. She trusted their word and respected their input. So when they said there was a sixth grader from Sundance playing volleyball with the eighth graders — and holding her own — she listened.
McInerney started playing volleyball seriously when she was in the second grade. She remembered that because her older sister, Teila, was in fourth grade. The hook was in from there.
Martin remembered thinking, surely, the player can’t be as good as the legend. She’d heard similar stories in a small volleyball community that had no shortage of stories. Their first meeting came in McInerney’s freshman season. She’d have to find out for herself.
“I thought she can’t be that good,” Martin remembered. “That was my comment a couple of times, ‘She’s good, but she’s a freshman.’
“Then I saw her play and, wow, she impressed me. I thought this girl here is the real deal.”
Wright got the better of Sundance throughout that year but by season’s end they stood toe-to-toe once again with the state championship on the line. It’s a stage Martin was familiar with and she ensured her team was just as comfortable. It was the largest stage McInerney had played on up to that point. She felt the butterflies.
At that time it was common knowledge how good Wright was. McInerney said that everyone in Sundance thought Martin “was kind of crazy.” But could she really be that crazy if she got the results?
Instead of going shell-shocked, McInerney harnessed that nervous energy into her potential. She’d been playing above her peers and status for years. This was just another obstacle to overcome, no matter how daunting it may be.
“I’d never played against teams like that,” McInerney said. “I didn’t have any grudges or anything like that but I wasn’t scared of anyone either. I wanted to prove I belonged there.”
Wright won that championship and Martin earned the bragging rights.
The rivalry between the two then abruptly came to an end. Martin accepted the volleyball coaching job at new Thunder Basin in nearby Gillette. That meant moving up to the bright lights of Class 4A.
While Martin started building a program in Gillette, Sundance beat Wright in the state championship in McInerney’s sophomore year. Two years later she’s still found opportunities to bring that up.
Fate intervened after the developing all-sports standout’s sophomore year. That shifted the two’s relationship from respectful admiration to a united front.
Rigan and Teila McInerney have enjoyed a close sisterly relationship since Rigan started playing volleyball with her older sibling. Separated by just 2 years, Rigan was able to follow one of her role models into most ventures. So when Teila graduated from Sundance and committed to playing basketball at Gillette College, Rigan started thinking.
Their mother, Veronica Kramer, had been the vice president of North Platte Physical Therapy for years. Moving to Gillette would be easier for her. If the two sisters wanted to attend each other’s games then living in Gillette would be the best option.
“That put a lot into it,” Rigan said. “Anyone who’s lived there knows winter in Sundance, it’s not easy to get around. And I wanted to be the best player I wanted to be so I was up to the challenge.”
Martin didn’t know it until the summer before Rigan’s junior year, when the move was already a done deal. The Bolts’ head coach was conscientious of how that move could be perceived. She didn’t want to be seen as trying to recruit from the area.
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Martin’s since reflected on those conversations and admitted it sounded like she was trying to convince Rigan not to come.
Thunder Basin activities director Tom Seamans caught wind of this new family, and new athlete, moving to town. He sought out Martin and asked the question that piqued his curiosity.
“Is she good? Do you know her?,” he asked.
“Yeah, she’s pretty good,” she responded. “I know her. I maybe know her better than anyone else.”
Rigan said she picked Thunder Basin just because that’s where she wanted to be. She could have gone a few blocks down the road, but instead she joined the Bolts. She knew the coach, she trusted her, and she knew a few of the girls from her multi-sport travels.
What the young standout didn’t anticipate, in the change from 2A to 4A, was the pace. The game moved a lot faster. Depth was also an issue. Class 2A teams might have one, maybe two quality offensive options. It’s not atypical for 4A teams to fill their lineups with players who can club a defense from all sides.
“I think it was just more competitive and just more exciting,” McInerney said.
Martin knew the new arrival’s potential and still took special enjoyment out of a certain instance when an opposing returning all-state player lined up across from McInerney and let loose the attack. Unlike so many others that came before her, the junior unflinchingly rose to the occasion and sent the crushing block back where it came from. Martin giggled.
“There’s more than one sheriff in town,” she remembered thinking at the time. “It was kind of nice knowing what she could bring to the table and then utilizing her and putting her face-to-face with some teams.
“You saw what she did and you go, ‘Well, that’s 2A,’ but she can play at any level.”
McInerney gelled with her teammates throughout the year and together they adapted to their situation. They made the state tournament and advanced as far as the semifinals before being eliminated by eventual champion Kelly Walsh. They left the state tournament in Casper with lessons, experience and eyes toward the future.
It wasn’t like McInerney lacked confidence; Martin simply brought it to a new level. The head coach knew how to push and prod and improve her players while constantly reinforcing their potential. That sort of coaching resonated.
“She’s one of the coaches I’ve been closest with because I tell her everything and she’s right there,” McInerney said. “She’ll say you’re getting in your own head. She’s taught me a lot I didn’t think I needed to know.”
Through that newfound confidence came leadership. She’d spent so many years playing with her older sister the rising senior found herself with the tools necessary to lead. She’d stop practices at the beginning of the season and tell her teammates their effort wasn’t good enough. They needed to pick it up.
“She didn’t just want to be a great player, she wanted to be a good teammate,” Martin explained. “We had a freshman on the court and Rigan wanted to help her. She always believed in her. She’s had the athleticism thing the whole time but the leadership thing was pivotal.”
Thunder Basin once again played its way into the state tournament and, eventually, the state championship match. They had defeated Kelly Walsh earlier in the season, giving the two-time reigning champion its only loss of the year. And when the Bolts fell behind 2-0, Rigan huddled the group together and explained the situation. This was her third state championship match. She knew what it took to get there and she knew how to win one.
“When we were on the court I was more comfortable,” she explained. “I like to be able to know it’s a big moment and a big-time game but I like to play calm. I knew it was a big game and I felt a lot of pressure but I focused on playing calm.”
Martin admired that. Some kids tighten to the point of lock-jaw in big moments. Knowing a conference championship was on the line against Cheyenne East, McInerney went in swinging and walked out with 20 kills. No moment was too big for her.
McInerney led Thunder Basin’s charge against Kelly Walsh in that championship match. The Bolts rallied back to force a fifth set and had the champions on their heels. The senior once again huddled her teammates before the fifth set and explained the situation.
It wasn’t enough. Kelly Walsh pulled away to win. Thunder Basin came up short. But not before their all-state senior left a lasting impact on the program.
“We have kids that look back at that moment and say, ‘I want that,’” Martin said. “I want to do what Rigan did.”
Martin received, by her estimates, messages from 50-60 college coaches asking about McInerney. They all wanted film. But the senior didn’t entertain offers until after volleyball season. That state championship, for herself and her teammates, was her sole focus.
As of the winter break, McInerney still hadn’t decided on her next step. She’s held high standards throughout the process. Wherever she goes will have to have a good pre-med program. She’s had to tell some that she’s taking her time in deciding. That, along with an earlier back injury, has brought recoil from a handful of schools but she’s still got plenty of options.
Whatever decision McInerney makes, Martin will be one of the first to know.
“I’m thankful to have coached Rigan,” Martin said. “Glad she gave me a chance. In 2A it’s kind of like a family but you’re step-siblings. I’m thankful that they chose us and she chose to go to Thunder Basin because there’s a school two miles away and she could have been in purple.”
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans