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A look back at 2004: The year of the Rabbits

WABASSO — Wabasso girls’ basketball coach Neil Dolan knew that his 2003-04 team was stacked with veterans who had played in big games before, but there was one thing missing from that group — a state tournament trip.

The previous two years, Wabasso made it to the Section 3A championship game, only to see Fulda deny the Rabbits a trip to the state tournament. That all changed for the Rabbits in 03-04 thanks to a group led by senior Jessica VanLoy, who was arguably the most-talented all-around player the Rabbits have had in the last 20-plus years. The Rabbits finished the season 30-3, winning their first-ever state championship in girls’ basketball. It was a perfect ending to a season that saw the Rabbits get tested only a few times as they dominated the competition.

The Rabbits were in a race with Minnesota Valley Lutheran for Tomahawk Conference supremacy that year. The two teams split with each other in the regular season, but both teams were in different classes and sections so they didn’t have to battle in the postseason.

Dolan, who has coached at Wabasso for about 20 years, had his most talented all-around team in 2003-04. VanLoy was the team’s leader on the court, with the hate-to-lose attitude and competitiveness that made it tough for any team to beat the Rabbits.

“She was a four-year starter and it’s hard to say this when you’ve coached 22 years, but Jessica was by far the best basketball player and athlete that I’ve coached, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve had some solid players. She wasn’t the leading scorer in school history, that was Andrea Fennern, but she has the career steals leader, she’s up there in rebounding. We’ve had some phenomenal scorers, like Morgan Frank, but she’s Top 3 in all categories I’ve ever had. Coaching her was a dream, the difference between Jessica was she was a coach on the court, we had a phenomenal point guard certainly in Andrea, that was her cousin, but Jessica led that team on the court and by example.”

Wabasso’s Andrea Fennern drives to the basket in the 2003-04 girls’ basketball state championship game against Underwood at Target Center

The Rabbits started VanLoy at the forward position and fellow seniors Chelsey Wagner (guard) and Ashley Prokosch also started down low. Katie Schumacher was a junior post player who was also a force down low and point guard Andrea Fennern was just a sophomore but already showing how talented she was going to be. VanLoy, Fennern, Schumacher and Prokosch all scored more than 1,000 points in their career, so that 03-04 team had plenty of scoring options.

Dolan knew his Rabbits team had plenty of confidence and the state tournament was definitely the No. 1 goal that season. The regular season saw them lose to MVL, Lincoln HI and Tracy-Milroy-Balaton in a double-overtime game right before the playoffs started. That loss to TMB was the eye-opener the Rabbits needed heading into a tough Section 3A tournament.

“MVL was AA at the time they had just powerhouse teams for years, so us them and always battled in those four or five years for the conference title,” Dolan said. “I think we lost to them at MVL and then we beat them at home. I know we had two loses going into Tracy, Tracy was a phenomenal team. They didn’t make it to the state tournament, but they had 26 or 27 wins, they beat us in double overtime, which actually was a godsend for us, it kind of woke us up because we were on a big streak there. We knew we were pretty good, but sometimes you get a little confident and then Tracy beat us in double overtime and that was very upsetting to the girls. I know Jessica took it really hard, it kind of laser focused the girls to get ready for the playoffs.”

The Rabbits had the big-game experience in the playoffs in prior years. Fulda got knocked out by Hills-Beaver Creek and the Rabbits were much more confident at that point.

“I know a lot of them as sophomores, VanLoy was a sophomore in that section championship (in 2001-02), then get beat out by Fulda again (in 2002-03), it was something that they wanted to accomplish and I think a little bit of a door opened when Fulda got beat by Hills-Beaver Creek,” Dolan said. “I think we would’ve fared well against Fulda no matter what because they had lost a little bit, but from a psychological standpoint for us, it was a boost to play Hills-Beaver Creek in the championship of the section.”

Wabasso’s Chelsey Wagner (left, No. 4) looks on as teammate Jessica VanLoy goes after a loose ball in the 2004 girls’ basketball state tournament at Target Center.

Dolan said that the team’s athleticism allowed him to change his defenses frequently and it seemed to always work.

“We had three different presses that year because they were athletic and talented,” Dolan said. “We had Jessica at the point, we had Andrea and Chelsey cover the wings and Katie Schumacher covered the middle and she was the best middle defender on the press that I’ve ever had. She never had to have the back girl which was Prokosch cover for her because she could go side to side and she anticipated well. I was certainly blessed with a talented team, but I had kids that listened and I haven’t had a team that could run the press as well as they could because they absolutely listened and would go through a wall for everything I said.”

The Rabbits beat H-BC 54-42 to win the section championship and it was on to Williams Arena, where the Rabbits had to earn the respect of the rest of the field.

The Rabbits did that right away, making a great first impression with a big 57-28 win over Barnesville at Williams Arena.

“We were unranked going into that state tournament, I remember the girls, Jessica and Andrea, were very confident kids, that was their nature,” Dolan said. “They didn’t have much fear, but that first game, stepping on Williams Arena floor, it’s a big show and you’re nervous. We settled down though and we had a great scouting report on Barnesville. Once we got off and running, we were fine in that game.”

While the Rabbits made a statement in the first game, they still didn’t seem to have any respect from the defending state champions from Kittson County Central, who rolled into the tournament unbeaten and ranked No. 1.

“I went into that coaches huddle, and their coach didn’t even look at us or acknowledge us,” Dolan said. “I went back to our huddle and said ‘you know what girls, she did not look at me,’ and VanLoy said ‘we’ll take care of that.'”

The Rabbits got off to a good start, building a lead on the 3-point shot. KCC made a big run late, but the Rabbits’ lead was too much to overcome for KCC. The Rabbits hung on for the 52-44 victory and advanced to the championship game.

“That was the highest of highs, we blew them out, it was difficult for us coming down against Kittson, but we knew that once we won that game, we had a real good chance,” Dolan said.

In the title game, the Rabbits met Underwood. There, they had a lead the entire time and cruised to a 59-48 victory for their first state championship.

While the Rabbits were making news for their state tournament run, Dolan and his wife became the story of the tournament as she was preparing to give birth to triplets. She gave birth to them two days after the state title game, a fitting end to a memorable season.

“It was kind of a phenomenal trip, for the two weeks leading up to that state tournament, I drove up and back before and after practice, I up there [Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis] every day,” Dolan said. “The state tournament, we put the girls to bed, we did our game planning and I went to the hospital. She [Dolan’s wife] watched the state tournament on TV, it was quite an experience.”

That 2003-04 championship team will always be the team that future Rabbit teams hope to emulate as far as success on and off the court.

“That team is still the team that our kids shoot for,” Dolan said. “We all want to get to the state tournament, and that team was the epitome of that. All of our girls know them and hear about them year after year. We’ve had fantastic teams since then, a lot of 25, 26-2-win teams and those were some fine teams as well. That’s what we shot for, we ran into Minneota like four or five times, it shows how difficult it is to get to and win a state tournament.”

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