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Lakeville's Rachel Banham drove to the basket for a layup in a December game. Marlin Levison, Star Tribune


Rachel Banham

The omnipresent headband gives way to a shaggy ponytail that moves in synchronization with her easy, athletic gait.

The ball seems to be an extension of whichever hand happens to be dribbling it, giving no visible signs of favoring one side or the other.

She moves up the court as if strolling through her Lakeville home, completely at ease, deciding which of her elite-level skills best fits the situation. Perhaps a drive left, accented by a better-not-blink, behind-the-back dribble that leads to an easy basket for a teammate? Or maybe a burst right that stops as quickly as it starts, leading to the state’s sweetest pull-up jumper?

It doesn’t take an experienced eye to see Rachel Banham doesn’t just play on a basketball court, she exists on one. If Hollywood put out a call for a prototypical point guard, the Lakeville North senior and future Gopher would be a shoo-in.

All of this is why Banham is the Star Tribune’s 2011 girls’ basketball Metro Player of the Year. And it’s why Gophers coach Pam Borton sees her as a player who could help recharge that program.

“Basketball is what I am,” Banham said. “I wouldn’t be anything without it. It’s not the only thing I’m interested in, but it has given me the opportunity to do things I never would have done.”

Pied Piper of roundball

The one thing Banham loves nearly as much as basketball is talking. A joke here, a quip or observation there. She knows who she is and she’s perfectly fine showing it, which is why teammates and classmates alike gravitate toward her.

“I like to include everybody,” she said. “I don’t want to belong to any clique — well, I am part of the basketball clique, but I like to spread it out. I like to be weird. Not creepy weird, but funny weird.”

It’s her leadership style and it’s incredibly effective. It helped her take the defending Class 4A champion Panthers — a team which lost center Cassie Rochel, with whom Banham shared last year’s Metro Player of the Year award, to graduation – to another state tournament.

“I call her an alpha-female,” Lakeville North coach Andy Berkvam said. “Everybody watches what she does.”

Berkvam said Banham’s evolution from great player to great leader was completed in December in the wake of a difficult loss to Hopkins.

“I took her aside and told her that she didn’t have to get better but that together, we had to get everybody else better,” Berkvam said. “Early in the season, she wasn’t confident in her teammates. That’s changed.”

Lakeville North lost its next game to Eden Prairie, but has since won 24 games in a row and received the No. 3 seed in this week’s Class 4A tournament field.

Up next: Williams Arena

The second child of Minneapolis police officers Don and Melissa Banham, Rachel learned long ago to embrace the Twin Cities area. She knew as far back as seventh grade that she wanted to stay home and play college basketball for the Gophers.

“I remember going and watching Lindsey Whalen and thinking, 'That’s where I want to go,’” Banham said. “Williams Arena is the sweetest court in the world. It’s so different than any other place.”

Banham gave Borton a verbal commitment prior to her junior year. While her national profile exploded last summer thanks to her play with the North Tartan AAU program, she never considered going back on her word.

“She’s a homebody,” North Tartan coach Gerard Coury said. “She has no ego. What’s important to her is family and a comfortable situation.”

It also helps that Banham’s remarkable skills are exactly what the Gophers recently have been lacking.

“She can do things you can’t coach, and that’s what makes a special player,” Borton said. “She has the skills to jump right in and play as a freshman. That’s not easy to do.”

Yet Borton chooses their words carefully, hoping to limit the expectations of success-starved fans.

“We’re not looking for 40 points a game from her,” she said. “If we just let Rachel play like Rachel, we’ll be fine.”

Banham admits that leaving the cozy confines of high school gymnasiums is daunting, but she’s also ready to take that next step.

“I’m a little bit nervous about going to college and classes and all that,” she said. “But I’m excited, too. I’m ready to see what I can become.”

ALL-METRO FIRST TEAM
Take a look at the best of the best from the Metro area on the Star Tribune's All-Metro teams here.

Past Players of the Year

YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL
1985 Janet Cobbs Concordia Academy
1986 Jennifer Hall Burnsville
1987 Mya Whitmore Hill-Murray
1988 Margaret Nowlin Cretin-Derham Hall
1989 Stacy Carver Buffalo
1990 Shannon Loeblein St. Paul Harding
1991 Shannon Loeblein St. Paul Harding
1992 Cheri Stafford Blaine
1993 Tracy Henderson Minneapolis Henry
1994 Kay Schmidt Bloomington Kennedy
1995 Sally Albers Apple Valley
1996 Carolyn Moos Blake
1997 Carolyn Moos Blake
1998 Tamara Moore Minneapolis North
1999 Mauri Horton Minneapolis North
2000 Susan King Holy Angels
2001 April Calhoun Armstrong
2002 Liz Podominick Lakeville
2003 Liz Podominick Lakeville
2004 Leslie Knight Hopkins
2005 Ashley Ellis-Milan St. Paul Central
2006 Jenna Smith Bloomington Kennedy
2007 Angel Robinson St. Paul Central
2008 Tayler Hill Minneapolis South
2009 Tayler Hill Minneapolis South
2010 Cassie Rochel
Rachel Banahm
Lakeville North
2011 Rachel Banham Lakeville North
2012 Marissa Janning Watertown-Mayer

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