Bulldogs eyeing shot at title

The 2019-20 Grangeville girls’ basketball team secured a berth at this week’s Class 2A state tournament by sweeping Orofino in a best-of-3 series. Members of the team, front from left, are: Macy Smith, Hayden Hill, Iseyda LaCombe, Zoe Lutz and Bella Dame. Back, from left, are: Talia Brown, assistant Brittany Ebert, Emma Edwards, coach Michelle Barger, Cameran Green, Megan Bashaw, Colby Canaday, Camden Barger, Bailey Vanderwall, Makayla Roberts and assistant Megan Turner.

When the Grangeville girls begin their Idaho Class 2A girls’ basketball tournament run at 2 p.m. Pacific on Thursday against Melba at Kuna High School, they will step onto the court as recognized state title contenders for the first time in recent memory.

This is Michelle Barger’s fourth season as head coach for the Bulldogs, who had been struggling to run a .500 record when she took charge of the program in 2016-17. Their results have improved each season during her tenure, culminating in a trip to State last year, where they fell to defending champion Soda Springs in the opening round.

This season’s Bulldogs have amassed a 19-4 record with a 4-0 mark in Central Idaho League play and a dominant district title run. Grangeville’s losses have all come in nonleague play against area powerhouse teams — one to Prairie (with which it split a pair of games), one to Colton (with which it also split) and two to Lapwai.

“I like hard competition,” said Barger, who has coached basketball in one place or another for 25 years since her playing days at Lewis-Clark State. “I think it only makes you better.”

Barger settled with her family in Grangeville around a decade ago and went to work building up its youth basketball community. She coached elementary, middle school and AAU basketball before ascending to the high school’s top position, and has worked with the Bulldogs’ current class of sophomores — which includes her daughter Camden — since they were in the third grade.

Camden has been Grangeville’s top scorer, averaging around 13 points per game, which was her total in the team’s 51-29 victory in Game 2 of their best-of-3 series against Orofino that cemented their state berth. She is around 50 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range on the season, leading the Bulldogs in both categories.

Fellow sophomore Bailey Vanderwall, who Michelle Barger describes as a “very well-rounded player,” comes in at around 10 points per game, while 5-foot-10 junior Zoe Lutz is the Bulldogs’ top rebounder with an average of around eight boards per contest. Other standouts include “great 3-point shooter” Macy Smith and defensive stalwart Megan Bashaw.

Michelle Barger thinks a run to the state final is feasible for her team, but it will not be an easy road. She ranks Grangeville among the top four in the field along with overall favorite Soda Springs — which has won the past two state titles — Cole Valley Christian, and opening-round opponent Melba. A win against Melba would advance the Bulldogs to a probable semifinal meeting at 5:15 p.m. Friday with the Soda Springs juggernaut.

“They’re a lot like us,” Michelle said of Melba, which won the Western Idaho League regular-season title but fell to Cole Valley Christian in its district tournament. “They’re quick, they push the ball, they’re really gritty on defense, so it should be a good match-up. It’ll be a hard match-up.”

Regardless of whether or not their state ambitions pan out this week, Michelle sees the Bulldogs’ long-term fortunes continuing to rise.

“Our program’s really headed in the right direction,” she said. “We have a lot of involvement in the community, which is really good — a lot of good coaches within the community. All these girls are great to coach; it’s just been a really fun year.”

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