Does height matter in basketball? Two starting players for the Paonia Lady Eagles will tell you in a very convincing way that, in the game, height doesn't always equal success.
When twins Kassidy and Randi Rapke were first coached in basketball in third grade by their uncle Travis, they fell in love with the sport. "It's just stuck with us," said Kassidy. "It's something we look forward to every year, and something that's deep in our hearts."
They knew they wanted to play in high school, but with few classmates wanting to join them, they didn't have a fifth or sixth grade team. So they played one-on-one. In seventh and eighth grade they played for coach Johnna Martin, along with another player who loves the sport, Mckenna Palmer.
By their freshman year the Rapkes stood 5 feet tall. They've always been told that "height doesn't matter in basketball," said Randi. "We have an advantage as well."
Paonia head coach Scott Rienks saw something in the twins, and suited them and Palmer, then 5-foot-11, up for varsity while they played at the JV level. "They have always shown a tremendous competitive spirit, despite often being matched against opponents who are taller," wrote Rienks by email. "They don't like to lose, so they are always willing to do what it takes to improve."
After two years on the JV team, their jobs changed dramatically their junior year. With five all-state seniors in the starting lineup, "It was important for us to come off the bench and not lose momentum for everyone else," said Kassidy. "That was our big job last year."
They succeeded, and Paonia enjoyed an undefeated season. "This is a new year and a new team," said Rienks. "Until this season they played off the bench behind other, older players... This is their chance and I think they're ready for it."
Until this year the Rapkes spent most of their time with defensive coach John Blair. Early in the season Rienks described them as "hard-nosed defensive players." This year, their role on offense is changing. "They are definitely a much bigger part of the offense because of their experience," said Rienks.
They also have good chemistry with Palmer, who is now 6 feet tall. She moved to Paonia in seventh grade, "They were the first ones to take me in and make me a part of their friends group," she said. When all three suited up for varsity their freshman year, they grew even closer. "From then on we've been 'The Three Amigos.'"
Kassidy and Randi are competitive on the court and at home. Which one is best, they said, depends on the day. Both lean toward studying the sciences in college, and both excel in track -- Kassidy in sprints, Randi in mid-distances; and in volleyball.
Like many twins, they're hard to tell apart. On court, Randi wears number 3, Kassidy 15. Side by side, 5-foot-5 Kassidy is about three inches taller than Randi. Both wear their long auburn hair in either a ponytail or braid, but Kassidy always wears hers on the side.
Both are goal-oriented players and head into each game with a new goal -- play crisp defense, don't let the girl they're guarding score, take the right shots. It depends on the game.
As they did last season, both want to help the team get to the state tournament in March.
In the first eight games of the season the Rapkes have combined for 55 steals and 13 defensive rebounds. Their focus is also getting the ball to Palmer, who is averaging almost 12 points per game.
As the team's high scorer, opponents want to take Palmer out of the game. At Plateau Valley, where she was held to a season-low eight points, she popped the ball out to them. "The nets were on fire when they were shooting," said Palmer. "They've been working on their shots, and that really showed."
In their last two games the Rapkes have combined for an average of 16.5 points per game. "If they're taking (Palmer) away, we have to be able to score on our own," said Randi. "We have to be a threat, too, and a lot of teams are not expecting that." They love the challenge, said Randi. "It makes the game a lot more fun."
And they still play vicious defense.
Paonia is now 6-2 for the season, after opening the 2A/1A Western Slope conference season last week with a 47-23 win at Plateau Valley, and a 61-8 win over Caprock Academy. As they make their way through the remainder of the conference season, they will face tougher teams, Vail Christian, Rangely, Hotchkiss and others, and they look forward to it.
"A lot of teams are doubting us," said Kassidy. When other teams look at the lineup and see a new team, it's fun, she said, to know they think it'll be an easy game. With this team, "We can prove them wrong."