Rachel Banham explodes onto scene
At her high school, Rachel Banham is known simply as "the headband girl."
In her hometown of Lakeville, Minn., the point guard is remembered more for her fashion statement than her play. But after the way Banham exploded on the circuit this summer, going from unranked to No. 19 in ESPN HoopGurlz's ranking of the 2011 class, everyone better start taking note of what she can do on the floor, not what she wears.
In Augusta, Ga., this July at Nike Nationals, Banham's North Tartan team was chipping away at a big DFW Elite lead in the quarterfinals. One of the best teams in the country this summer, DFW was defined by quick, scrappy guards that gave defenses fits. In Augusta, they had a double-digit lead most the game. But as time expired in regulation, North Tartan called a timeout to diagram a play for Banham, one that called for her to set a screen before slipping through two defenders and sprinting the length of the court. North Tartan threw it long, and Banham made a layup at full speed with two DFW guards trailing close behind. Suddenly, North Tartan had a lead.
Though Banham and her teammates would go on to lose in double overtime, Banham had left her mark.
"I've never been in that situation," Banham said. "There were a ton of people, everyone was screaming. It was super fun -- that gym was pumping."
When she caught the pass and extended for a layup, Banham looked a little like a wide receiver on a football field. That's a fitting description considering her childhood.
"I played football in my backyard with my brothers and dad all the time," Banham said. "It always got really intense, we'd be tackling and everything."
The summer before eighth grade, Banham was so into football that she persuaded her parents to let her attend football camp. She was the only girl in a camp with 200-plus boys. And all she did was lead her team to the camp championship, get named MVP and win the speed drill.
"She's not the flashiest kid but she doesn't have to be," said Bill Larson, North Tartan's club director. "She can do anything she wants."
On the basketball court, Larson and North Tartan coach Gerard Coury rave about Banham's ability to control tempo, something she no doubt learned from years of playing with boys.
"I played with my brothers for so long I got so used to how strong guys are and how fast they are," Banham said. "It helped me so much when I go play pick up at the gym & it's easy for me to maneuver around girls."
"We had a long talk with her right when we were getting into July and we told her, 'You have to be special for us,' " Coury recalled. "When it comes down to it, when we need someone to score in crucial spots, she can do it. Earlier in the summer season we had to run more plays for her; now she can just take over."
Banham's skill set and will to win had college coaches shaking their heads in awe this summer. But the player no one knew about until now already has a place to go.
Coury and Larson say they have spoken frankly with Banham that after the summer she just had, she could probably have her pick of colleges across the country. Banham's not interested. She's staying loyal to Minnesota, which offered her last summer. A self-described homebody, Banham's family lives just 20 miles away from the Gophers' campus. She says committing to them was "a gut thing."
At Minnesota, Coury believes Banham can and will contribute immediately. He says Banham can do what Dean Smith -- the famed North Carolina coach -- always preached was most important for a point guard: put the ball in the right people's hands.
"It's all about knowing your personnel and Rachel understands that," Coury said. "She knows how to be a coach on the floor."
But before the Gophers come the Panthers. Banham last season helped lead Lakeville North High School to a sparkling 32-0 record and state championship, and knows she has set a high bar. But if anyone can step up, it's the headband girl.
Banham estimates she owns at least 50 headbands, all of different colors and patterns. At Minnesota, she hopes she gets to keep her tradition of wearing a different one each game.
"I'm not sure why I love them so much but now I don't think I can play well without them," Banham laughed. "I have to have them."
At first, Gopher fans might only identify her as "the headband girl." But if history is any indication soon enough Gopher fans, as well as basketball fans across the country, will know Banham for more than what she wears in her hair.
And don't be surprised if she considers walking onto the Gopher football team.
"I wonder," she said, "do they need a receiver or running back?"
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