High school girls basketball: Flandreau Fliers ready for long-awaited state tournament appearance

Fliers guard Claire Sheppard shoots during a game against Dell Rapids on Dec. 29 in Flandreau. The Fliers will make their first state tournament appearance since 1997 when they face top-seeded Hamlin on Thursday. (Jason Salzman/salzmanstudios.smugmug.com)

FLANDREAU – In the first game of the season, the Flandreau Fliers took on the Hamlin Chargers at the Entringer Classic. The build to the game was a challenge as the Fliers had their first scheduled game cancelled and a big snowstorm limited their practice time to prepare for the game.

Flandreau would fall to the Chargers 58-45, but head coach Megan Severtson left that game optimistic about her team’s chances.

“I thought our ceiling was pretty high,” Severtson recalled. “We definitely had a lot of players stepping into bigger roles…everyone was just kind of trying to figure out what their job was and I just left feeling like we had a lot of room where we could grow.”

Three months later, the Fliers are getting ready to show how much they’ve improved during a rematch with the top-seeded Chargers in the quarterfinals of the Class A Tournament in Watertown on Thursday afternoon. The Fliers had several players learning on the fly in that first game including juniors Lily Klein and Lizzie Pavlis. While some players were adapting to new roles, a team-wide transition from a defense that historically played a zone scheme to one that plays more man also provided some early-season issues.

“[The Hamlin game] was the first game that we played [man-to-man], so they were still trying to figure things out,” Severtson said. “I think going from that game to now, they would say that our defense is probably what improved the most. I would say that we play a physical style of defense, so I think that has probably been our biggest difference maker.”

Flandreau figured it out as the year progressed and held their opponents to 35.8 points per game this season. The Fliers have been even more effective in the playoffs, averaging 26 points per game in three tournament games, turning what was a question mark into a strength.

That’s not to say that the Fliers lack offense. SDSU commit Claire Sheppard has played a guard/forward hybrid role to lead Flandreau’s offense and the team learned to place more trust in each other as they got comfortable in the system.

“We’ve just meshed a little bit more,” Severtson said. “They’ve learned how to play off each other better. I felt the first time we played [Hamlin], there was just a lot of standing and waiting, but our girls are moving a lot better without the ball right now.”

With both sides of the ball clicking, the Fliers ripped through the playoffs with regional wins over Great Plains Lutheran and Florence/Henry. In the SoDak 16, Flandreau met St. Thomas More, who defeated them 54-34 during the Hanson Classic at the Corn Palace in Mitchell on Jan. 14.

However, the second meeting between the two schools turned out different as the Fliers used their strong defense and just enough offense to pick up a 47-38 win and punch their ticket to qualify for the state tournament for the second time in the past four years.

But this trip means more to the Fliers, who haven’t played in a tournament game since 1997 and have several connections to both squads.

Sheppard’s mother, Sandy (Wiese) Sheppard, played on the 1997 girls’ team while her father and boys head coach Brendan Sheppard played on the 1997 boys team, who went undefeated and won the state championship.

Claire Sheppard, Pavlis and Klein were also eighth graders on the 2020 team that qualified for the state tournament but were unable to play after it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That history and the opportunity to get back to state is something that has fueled the group and has relieved any nerves of playing in Flandreau’s first state tournament game in 26 years.

“I don’t really feel like they think there’s a lot of pressure going into this,” Severtson said. “I think when you have something like that happen to you, you’re more grateful for the experience. They are really committed to the memories part of it and not taking for granted an opportunity to go because we know that you have to work really, really hard to get there.”

That leads to Thursday afternoon when the Fliers will have a rematch with Hamlin. The Chargers ran through their schedule to compile a 22-0 record and earn the top seed in the tournament. While Flandreau matches up with the Chargers’ size, Hamlin has an inside-out attack that is led by senior and University of Sioux Falls commit Kami Wadsworth, who had 18 points in their 60-24 victory over Milbank on Friday night.

“There’s no one or very few people in the state that play the way Kami Wadsworth plays from a physicality standpoint,” Severtson said. “She’s just a very, very good player. We don’t have anyone that plays identical to her by any means, but at least size-wise, I feel like we match up pretty well.”

Despite the tough opponent, Severtson is confident her Fliers will be ready to compete and show Hamlin how different they are from the first game of the season.

“We choose to approach each game as a challenge and be willing to attack it,” Severtson said. “I just think that if we can have the same mentality going into the state tournament, our girls will play confidently and with a mentality that we don’t really have anything to lose. …I don’t think anyone goes in and says ‘Oh I want the undefeated No. 1 seed in the first round’ but we’re willing to accept the challenge.”