FREMONT, Neb. — Lauren Baker and the Archbishop Bergan Lady Knights take on Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family in a first-round game of the Class D-1 girls state basketball tournament at Lincoln Southwest High School on Wednesday.
Bergan is a young group this season — Baker is one of two seniors in the starting lineup and her sister, Rebecca, is one of two sophomores while the point guard is a freshman. While some of her teammates might be a bit wide-eyed playing in a high stakes state-tournament atmosphere, it won’t be a new experience for Baker. In other words, it’s not her first rodeo. Or second. Or third.
Baker has achieved something not many in Nebraska high school athletics can say: when the ball gets tossed up for the opening tip Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Baker will have played in a total of eight state tournaments in her prep career.
Baker and the Lady Knights have made the past four state volleyball tournaments, winning the championship her sophomore year in 2018 with runner-up finishes in 2019 and 2020. On the basketball court, Baker and her team were state bound in 2018 and won the whole thing in 2019 while claiming runner-up in 2020.
Now in her senior year, Baker, a Concordia University basketball commit who broke the 1,000-career-points milestone in her team’s district final win over Southern, is balling in Lincoln yet again. The volleyball and basketball squads Baker has played on are a combined 12-5 at state. But even as a state tournament veteran, she still gets anxious at times.
“I would say all the experience helps a little bit, but I’m always nervous before every game,” Baker said. “It’s always super exciting, though. There are a lot of celebrations afterward because with the amount of hard work it takes to get there, it’s just a big relief to get there (Lincoln).”
All that postseason experience has helped shape the way Baker deals with the state atmosphere. As a freshman, she started on the front row of Bergan’s volleyball team.
“The nerves were the highest that year,” she said of her 2017 campaign. “I had never been in front of a crowd that big and that loud, so I was nervous the whole time. That was a huge learning experience — the first time making state in volleyball. So I’ve learned to handle my nerves and remain within myself and not get too caught up with the crowd.”
Bergan (15-9) heads into this week’s tournament as the No. 4 seed. Baker is averaging 17 points and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 35 percent (40 of 113) from 3-point range and 83 percent (101 of 122) from the free-throw line. She’s the leader of the team and wants to act like it on the court when things get tough.
Stay within yourself and remain focused on the task at hand. That’s what she tells her teammates when things don’t go according to plan in the middle of a game.
“If the opposing team’s crowd is going nuts, it’s going to be super loud and it’s easy to get down on yourself when the other team is pumped up,” Baker said. “But I just want to tell them (teammates) to remain focused — the other team’s on a run but we’re going to go on a run, too. You have to remain stable through the highs and the lows.”
The 5-foot-10 Baker said she’s a player that wants to get her teammates involved early in a game — she’s racked up four or more assists in six contests this season. She likes playing on the perimeter, but since the Lady Knights aren’t very tall this year, she plays inside at times, too.
“I can’t win the game for us, it’s has to be everyone,” Baker said. “I just want to be a motivator, so if someone doesn’t see a couple go down, I want to be the first one to say, ‘Keep shooting, be confident in your shot.’”
But when things get tight down the stretch, the coaches want the ball in Baker’s hands. This season she’s scored 20 or more points in nine games and netted a season-high 24 four times.
After two straight runner-ups in volleyball, and falling short in the championship basketball game last year, there’s definitely a sense of unfinished business for Bergan. Placing second at state is still a huge accomplishment, but Baker said it leaves everyone with that “we’re so close” thought in the back of their minds. She wants to taste that championship like she did twice as a sophomore.
“It’s going to be very difficult, there’s a bunch of talented teams there,” Baker said of the state tournament. “But something about our team this year is the fearlessness. We’re pretty young, and our younger players are gutsy — they’re ready to go play and that’s super exciting.”
Bergan’s young players are ready for Wednesday’s game, and they’ll have a seasoned veteran leading them into it.