Great players aren't always humble. But this year, some of the best prep girls basketball players were not only talented, they were hardworking, humble teammates. Their skills make it impossible to ignore them, but it was their ability to inspire and lead other student-athletes that made them the 2013 Deseret News MVPs.
Only one thing overshadows Katie Panushka’s talent on the basketball court — the person she is on and off it.
“What shines brighter than Katie’s abilities and skills as a basketball player is her great attitude, her work ethic and her great leadership,” said St. Joseph head coach Joe Cravens. “She has the whole package of being a talented person, and she comes to play and play hard every time she steps on the court.”
The senior guard/forward is such an effective leader, Cravens said she ranks up there with the best he’s ever coached — including Division I men.
"She's maybe the best leader I've had at any level, and doing it in a very subtle, charming way,” he said. “She's not up in your face; she leads by example. She's an all-around athlete, student, just a kid that anyone would want to have as a daughter."
Panushka’s determination is something her mom Teresa Panushka has seen in just about every area of the teen’s life. Whether it’s taking a tough class or chasing a loose ball, she gives the task everything she has.
“She’s always been fairly athletic,” said her mom. “She’s always been very tenacious. She’s pretty goal-driven.”
Panushka’s competitive nature is something that served her well this season as the Jayhawks not only tried to earn back-to-back 1A titles, but they did it without a loss.
“She can be stubborn, but that’s probably a good thing,” said Teresa Panushka. “When she decides she’s going to do something, she does it. She’s been on high honor roll since she was in the fourth grade. She really likes to challenge herself, on and off the court.”
Panushka led the team with 12.3 points per game this season. But she was also one of the team’s leading rebounders, especially in the playoffs when it mattered most. She averaged 3.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.0 steals per game in the 1A state tournament. She also hit the game-tying 3-point shot that sent her team’s semifinal win over Rich into the first of two overtimes.
“She was our leading scorer and without a doubt, our best perimeter defender,” said Cravens. “Because of her tenacity, competitive spirit and attention to detail, we put her on guards and forwards. And she played well in big games, when you needed your star to play well.” Her ability to rise to the occasion is what made it so difficult for opponents to stop her.
“When we played against her the first time, she beat us,” said Layton Christian Academy head coach Lewis Lofton. “She hits great shots. She has great timing for when to step up her game. When a team really needs her, that’s when she steps up.”
Athletes like Megan Bean are like four-leaf clovers — so rare it’s hard not to feel a bit of magic is at work.
“She has made a lasting impact on Richfield basketball since she was a freshman,” said Richfield head Marc Peterson. “Megan is and will be one of the best players to have played at Richfield.”
Bean is a two-time 2A MVP in basketball, which is her second sport. She signed with Weber State in volleyball, where she was also a two-time MVP.
“Her commitment to volleyball did not stop her from giving everything she had to basketball. She was more determined than anyone to get back to that championship game. She had an excuse not to work as hard because she’d committed to volleyball, but that wasn’t even on her radar.”
Like the other Wildcat seniors, Bean was single-minded about winning a state title in her final high school season.
She led the team with 14 points, 7.38 rebounds and two steals per game. Peterson said her stats could have been even better if coaches hadn’t taken the starters out of most region games by the second half. She helped the Wildcats to an undefeated region title and 2A state championship.
“She didn’t get too many second-half minutes,” he said.
What set Bean apart from other post players, he said, was her speed and agility.
“She runs the floor like a guard and is very quick to the ball and the hoop,” he said. “Megan controlled the paint on offense and made it very difficult for opposing teams to score in the paint.”
Her willingness to work hard, regardless of the task, set a tone that permeated the program.
“Megan’s strong work ethic has made her an example to all of the younger players in the program,” he said.
Bean was surrounded by talented players at Richfield, but Peterson said regardless of her situation, her work ethic would have made her a success.
“You could put Megan on any other team and they’re a better team,” he said. “Even though she’s won a lot of awards, she just still the same kid, gives you everything she’s got, and humble at the same time. She’s a coach’s dream.”
Haley Bodnar decided last year that she wanted to get better as a basketball player.
Her hard work in the offseason paid off as she led the Thunder to a region title and second-place finish in the 3A state tournament.
“She has height; she’s athletic and strong; and she just spends a lot of time playing,” said Thunder head coach Chris Allred. “She’s already preparing for next year, trying to make herself a better player.
The junior center is a force on offense and defense at an athletic 6-foot-3. She averaged 13.6 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. Her ability to defend the paint made it tough on opponents.
“Not only was she being double-teamed but often it was triple-teamed,” he said. “A lot of teams were doing a lot of things to try and stop her.”
Her evolution was a key reason why the Thunder was ranked No. 1 throughout the season.
“Haley has worked extremely hard and the improvement from her sophomore year to her junior was incredible,” said Snow Canyon head coach Wade Jensen. “She has the potential to be great. She changed games just by her presence in the paint.”
“She came a long way this year,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone in the state who can score with her back to the basket as well as she can. She also works extremely hard for position down low.”
Funny and laid back off the court, Allred said she is a “unique personality.”
Bodnar isn’t the kind of player to let emotions get the best of her.
“She’s not one that’s up and down,” Allred said. “She doesn’t get teary-eyed. But she hates to lose. That really bothers her. ... She’s a good student who works hard to do her best.”
Emilie Volk is talented enough that she wouldn’t have to do much to be successful.
But the senior, who played every position on the floor except center this season, was not content with simple success.
“She’s a special person and I think a lot of it is God-given,” said Bonneville head coach Mike Russell. “At the same time, she’s a very, very hard worker.” When asked what her greatest strengths were as an athlete, Russell said it would be hard to single out just one.
“Her size is obviously a huge help with her just being as long as she is, coupled with her overall ability,” he said. “She moves so well, and I had coaches comment all the time how fun she is to watch.”
Volk started her career at a 1A private school, Christian Heritage. When the school closed the summer before her junior year, she transferred to Bonneville.
“That’s a tough time to move,” said Russell. “It’s hard to try and fit in. But she just stepped right in and hit the ground running. There really wasn’t a learning curve for her. She fit in perfectly.”
Sometimes having a superstar join a team that’s already talented can be problematic.
“But she doesn’t have an ego,” said Russell. “She’s the epitome of the team player and humility. She’s the most down-to-earth, humble person I’ve ever met.”
Her humility coupled with her talented and ferocious work ethic made her a leader on the Laker squad that was undefeated until meeting eventual 4A state champion Springville in the semifinals.
In fact, if she has a flaw, it might be that she’s not arrogant — at all.
“She was too unselfish sometimes,” Russell said. “We constantly had to tell her to be assertive. She’s such a team player, she just wants to get everybody involved.”
She will graduate with a 3.98 GPA and take her skills to Fresno State. She averaged 15 points, six rebounds, 2.75 assists and 2.42 steals per game.
While the Lakers will miss her hard work and humility, opponents are breathing a sigh of relief at her impending graduation.
“Emilie was a very difficult player to prepare for,” said Roy head coach Brock Randall. “She creates matchup problems wherever she is on the floor. You’re always nervous when you go up against a player that can play like a guy. She is probably one of the two smoothest players I’ve ever coached against. She is so fundamentally sound and disciplined. When you combine that with her length and size and it becomes quite a recipe for success. It was a pleasure coaching against her.”
Adds Springville head coach Nancy Warner: “Emilie is an all-around great athlete and basketball player. She could do it all for her team. We knew she was going to get her points, her rebounds. I don’t think she’s an athlete who can be stopped.”
As the only returning varsity starter, Erin Reichle felt a lot of pressure to carry the Weber Warriors.
Unfortunately, the more she tried to do it on her own, the more the young Warriors struggled.
“The pressure in the preseason was pressure she put on herself, and she just tried to do too much,” said Weber head coach Rick Stoekl. “We sat down and worked it out that the only way we could be successful is for her to trust the other players. She had to trust that they would make their shots, get rebounds, and when she did that, she relaxed more.”
And her teammates’ confidence grew. Reichle’s faith in them helped them to rely on her less.
“She made everybody comfortable with their roles,” he said. “We stopped standing around watching Erin play.” The guard led her team with 22 points per game, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. She helped her team find success in a very difficult Region 1. The Warriors were the only team to beat region champion Davis — and they beat them twice.
“Erin was really hard to prepare for,” said Davis head coach Anne Jones. “She does so many things really well. She was a rebounder, a shooter. The ball was always in her hands. She’s very dangerous.”
But maybe more difficult for opponents to deal with was how she helped her teammates improve as the season progressed.
“The thing about Erin is not only was she a great player, but she made everyone around her better,” said Jones. “All of the Region 1 coaches, nobody could stop her. When it got tight, I think she beat you all by herself. You knew what was going to happen; you tried to prepare; but she’s just so tough mentally and has such great fundamental basketball skills, she’d still beat you, almost single-handedly.”
Her skill was exceeded only by her intelligence.
“She’s just extremely smart on the floor,” said Stoekl, “but athletically, her quickness and strength were her best qualities. She was just so strong. That’s the biggest thing, her speed and he strength.”
Still, the team’s ability to compete in such a tough, deep region hinged on her ability to inspire and lead her teammates
“She was definitely our leader,” said Stoekl. “She just showed them that she trusted them. Every day in practice she was in there encouraging them to shoot, to rebound, to play defense, so in that respect, that’s how our team became better. She trusted them and they trusted her.”
Reichle signed with Dixie State University, although she may seek a release as the coach who recruited her was recently fired, Stoekl said.
An honor student, Reichle also plays second base for the defending 5A state champion Weber High softball team. If anyone deserves recognition for her effort, on and off the court this season, it’s Reichle, her coach says.
“She deserves her accolades,” said Stoekl. “I’ve never seen a kid that’s worked as hard as she does at this age.”