Lakeville's Rachel Banham drove to the basket for a layup in a December game. Marlin Levison, Star Tribune
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.
|1985||Janet Cobbs||Concordia Academy|
|1988||Margaret Nowlin||Cretin-Derham Hall|
|1990||Shannon Loeblein||St. Paul Harding|
|1991||Shannon Loeblein||St. Paul Harding|
|1993||Tracy Henderson||Minneapolis Henry|
|1994||Kay Schmidt||Bloomington Kennedy|
|1995||Sally Albers||Apple Valley|
|1998||Tamara Moore||Minneapolis North|
|1999||Mauri Horton||Minneapolis North|
|2000||Susan King||Holy Angels|
|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|
|2011||Rachel Banham||Lakeville North|