Southeast Missourian girls basketball player of the year: Bollmann emerged as a scoring force for Meadow Heights

Sunday, April 29, 2012
Meadow Heights senior Erin Bollmann averaged 26.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Panthers this season. (Fred Lynch)

Erin Bollmann's breakout season took root during the summer, when she loved going to the basketball court because it was a chance to forget about her worries and enjoy herself.

"I would play great because it was the best thing that was happening to me at the time," she said.

It was during the summer practices and games that Bollmann gained confidence in her abilities on the court, and that carried over to the high school season. Meadow Heights also had a new coach, and he switched to a style that forced Bollmann into the spotlight, where she shined. She increased her scoring average by more than 12 points per game from her junior season and helped lead the Panthers to a 22-5 record, which is why the senior is the Southeast Missourian player of the year.

"We just couldn't stop her defensively," St. Vincent senior Courtney Heberlie said. "She's just quick."

Bollmann enjoyed a successful junior season. She averaged 14.1 points, 11 rebounds and 4.2 steals per game. But there was little indication there would be such a drastic improvement in production this season.

Meadow Heights senior Erin Bollmann averaged 26.3 points per game to lead the Panthers to the Class 2 sectional round this season. (Laura Simon)

"I don't think I had the same ability this year as I had in the past years," she said. "I didn't realize I had that ability, actually."

She's still trying to get accustomed to the spotlight. She talks about her improved play like a little kid on Christmas. She's found something new and she's trying to figure out the best way to use it.

"My highest scoring last year was 21 points," she said. "This year, I only scored below 21 points three times. It's a big transition, and I've never had that transition in my life. I think that's what makes me love basketball so much because I grow so much every single year."

Her midrange jump shot, which she playfully talks about falling in love with, is one example of a newfound skill. She claims she first discovered her ability to hit it against Notre Dame in last season's Christmas tournament.

"It was the prettiest shot I ever shot, and I made it," she said. "I looked at the video about maybe 20 times and realized I've got a midrange jumper."

Meadow Heights coach Mark Verticchio encouraged her to work on it because he realized it could be a useful weapon for her.

"The biggest thing I saw -- this is going to sound kind of weird -- she shot like a boy," he said. "Her extension was just very good. The girls had a hard time blocking it because she could shoot over people. I think that's going to serve her well in college."

But Bollmann needed the external encouragement to believe it could be a weapon. It's something she tried to remedy this season.

"Everybody's telling me I can do something, and I didn't believe in myself," she said. "I had a lot of people telling me I couldn't do it, and I was listening to them. Finally when I said to myself you've got to stop listening to these people, you can do something, I accomplished a lot."

Mitch Nanney, the Meadow Heights High School principal, served as the Panthers girls basketball coach since the team's inception seven years ago until handing over the reins to Verticchio this season. He witnessed Bollmann's need for that extra push.

"She needs that little extra support sometimes to get over the hump," he said. "She's very critical of herself a lot. I don't know if it's necessarily lack of confidence, but she's very critical in everything she does, and she's looking to do it the perfect way."

Verticchio tried to set the tone for Bollmann during the summer. He wanted her to understand his expectations.

"The first game of summer season, my coach told me, 'You've got to be a star,'" she said. "I took those words to heart. And no matter what, if I make a mistake, if I do anything wrong, I'm going to overcome it and make another basket."

She quickly developed into a star and tried to grow accustomed to the spotlight. She remembers a conversation with her mother after the second game of the season.

"I had 26 points, and it was the first time I've ever scored that much in my life," she said. "I was telling my mom, 'This is amazing. I just scored 26 points. That's five points over last year.' Then a few games after that when I scored 34 points, I realized this is going to be it. This is going to be a regular thing."

One of the reasons for Bollmann's success was Verticchio's switch to a pressing defense. He went with a 1-2-2 defense, and he inserted the 5-foot-9 Bollmann at the top of the press. She went from primarily playing in the post to being more of a guard this season. That meant smaller guards were trying to get around her, which usually played out in Bollmann's favor.

"I know that she worked really, really hard in the offseason to get where she was," Meadow Heights senior Whitney Welker said. "And this season with the new coach, we had a new coaching style, which really helped her kind of come out on her own to just really come out into the spotlight to show how good of a player she is. By running our 1-2-2 press, that just really, really showed that off because of her wingspan, her length, her ability."

She averaged 7.4 steals per game this season, which was 3.2 more than last season. Those steals also helped bolster her scoring output because she'd make the steal and quickly lay it in before the opposition had a chance to react.

"There were a lot of games where she would get four or six points before you could even bat an eye," Verticchio said.

And Nanney said those quick starts were key to success for Bollmann because it gave her a boost of confidence.

"The style they were playing put her in a real good position to use her athleticism and length to her advantage," he said. "That's one of those things, when she gets going, it's kind of like a rock rolling down a hill. She really gathers momentum really well. When good things happen, they keep happening to her."

Bollmann finished the season averaging 26.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.

"She's very tough because when she wanted to go to the basket, she would go to the basket and you couldn't really stop her," Notre Dame senior Brooke Bohnert said.

But the season did not unfold as Bollmann envisioned after the Panthers reached the Class 2 state quarterfinal round the last two seasons. They came agonizingly close to the final four last year but were denied the trip in a double-overtime loss to Couch. This year's team believed it was destined to avenge that loss.

"We felt we had a better chance than last year due to us knowing our role," she said. "We knew we had to work hard to get there, but we didn't want to have the mentality of we're going to win so we don't have to try. We thought this year would be it."

The Panthers never got that chance because they lost to New Haven 49-48 in the sectional round. It's a loss that still haunts Bollmann.

"I can't watch basketball right now," she said as tears started to well up. "I can't. I turn it on and I start crying because I think about me playing basketball."

The team felt the pressure of getting so close to the final four only to be turned away. The Panthers didn't want to experience that heartbreak again this season.

"People at school were saying, 'No pressure. Don't worry about it,' but we wanted to go, and this is the year to go," Bollmann said. "Winning our district was amazing. Getting to sectionals was a dream come true. But we felt a lot of pressure that sectional game because that probably was more competition than we would have in that quarterfinal game."

She claims it was a perfect storm that worked against the Panthers in the New Haven game. It started when she forgot her jersey and was forced to wear teammate Makayla McGruder's. Teammate Taylor Cureton suffered an ankle injury in the game, and Welker lost one of her contacts and had to play with blurred vision before fouling out early in the fourth quarter. Bollmann rallied the Panthers to tie the game with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left, but a made free throw with 3 seconds left ended the Panthers' season.

"In the final seconds, I was thinking, 'Why? Why did all these things have to happen?'" Bollmann said.

Her coach credits her development during the season for keeping the Panthers in the game until the end.

"Sometimes kids will pick up out of necessity," Verticchio said. "She realized she was going to have to score just for us to be successful. Up to the bitter end, even the game we lost in sectionals ... in the end, when Whitney fouled out in the fourth quarter and we were losing, most people thought the game was over, but she brought us back into it. We actually missed a shot to win it. She deserves a lot of credit for that."

Bollmann said she neither has nor wants a copy of the final game. She never wants to see the film because of the pain she felt after the loss.

"We wanted it so bad," she said. "It was on our shoes -- state. We had lucky charms. We were ready. We don't know why we didn't go. We knew all of us were trying our best, we just didn't know why."

Bollmann said she made a rash decision after the sectional loss. She committed to play at Maryville University next season but instantly realized it was a mistake.

"I felt like it just wasn't the right thing because my dream is to go Division I," she said. "I was looking at some junior colleges and finally told them I didn't think I would be going Division II."

She changed her mind and decided to attend Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff, Mo. She'll continue to be teammates with Welker, who also committed to Three Rivers. Bollmann sees that as her best path to accomplishing her dream of playing Division I basketball.

"I realized my life is short," she said. "There's things I need to do and there's things I need to accomplish that I don't need to be scared of."

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