GIRLS BASKETBALL: Taylor-made

MINNEOTA – The light from the TV in Minneota’s Taylor Reiss’s eyes was bright, but she stared back unwavered. Reiss had just made the steal and layup that sent the Minneota Vikings to the 2014 Class A state championship game.

To her, the crowd of reporters that gathered after might as well have been the entire city of Minneapolis.

Everyone wanted an audio clip of what made the star from the southwest Minnesota town of 1,600 people make one of the biggest plays of the year in an arena that holds a little more than 14,500 people located in a city of just over 400,000.

Always being in the spotlight, the center of attention can wear on most people. Even ones like Reiss who are used to it.

“It’s a lot of pressure sometimes,” Reiss said. “There are times where I wish I could just turn it off, but I’m used to it. I like being the one my teammates and coaches can count on in pressure situations. Being that person brings the best out in me.”

Reiss was selected as the Independent’s Player of the Year for girls basketball for the second year in a row. As a junior, she already holds the all-time scoring record for both boys and girls basketball at Minneota.

She finished the year with a shooting percentage just shy of 72 percent and averaged a double-double at 24 points and 10 rebounds per game.

She also finished with nearly two assists, three steals and two blocks per game.

The Vikings finished 32-2 and lost in the state championship game to Win-E-Mac after winning the state title the year before.

There are many aspects that make Reiss the player she is, but she showed that she had instincts and the will to rise to the occasion that many don’t have in getting that game-winning steal against Goodhue.

She showed her ability to improvise.

Originally, she didn’t think the ball was going to the opponent she was guarding on the inbounds pass, thinking it was going to go to their leading scorer, Mikayla Miller, instead.

Once she realized Miller, who finished the game with 25 points, wasn’t going to be an option, she read the play and went for the swipe and was fortunate that the ball was bobbled, allowing her to come up with the steal.

“She’s very competitive,” Minneota coach Chad Johnston said. “She hates to lose. We see her do all these great things and every once in awhile, she’ll do the extraordinary thing. When the game is on the line, you see her doing those things. That’s something that she has developed.”

One of the other challenges the spotlight creates is the expectation factor. Reiss’s biggest fear is not living up to her own expectations.

She constantly wants to contribute to the greater good.

“The hardest part about the spotlight is that I place really high expectations on myself,” Reiss said. “I hate disappointing people. That’s why I hate losing so much. When we lose, I feel like I’m letting people down. It makes me work so much harder.”

Reiss, who has already verbally committed to South Dakota State on a volleyball scholarship, started playing basketball in the fourth grade. At 5-foot-10, she has the height advantage on most players, but that hasn’t always been the case.

She hit her growth spurt closer to high school, and that’s when her game really took off.

Johnston and the coaching staff were blown away by her progress.

“We were thinking, if we got 10 points from her as a freshman starter, that’s good,” Johnston said. “We thought most of those points would come from fastbreaks and rebounds. We thought she was still pretty green as far as throwing her the ball and her making moves and scoring on people. She surpassed our expectations as a freshman big time.”

As she got older, her game grew, and so did the number of defenders she attracted.

The double-teams and increased pressure started during her sophomore year, and that took some adjusting. That job for her and the coaching staff was easy and difficult at the same time. Reiss is such an unselfish player that she had to learn when to take the help and when to take the game into her own hands.

“We’ve told Taylor that when teams are trying hard to take her out of the game, that she needs to trust her teammates,” Johnston said. “We actually got on her a little bit this past year because she would dish the ball out when she needed to take control and put the game on her shoulders. She wanted to give her teammates that opportunity.”

Trusting her teammates is easy for her to do because her teammates are the reason she plays the game, not for the accolades.

“My favorite part is just getting the chance to play with my teammates and form that bond and make memories,” Reiss said. “Winning never hurts either.”

Her talented cast of teammates these past two seasons have helped her compile plenty of wins.

She has developed an deadly inside-out combo with longtime friend and teammate Emily Stienessen, who can be devastating to opponents when her jump shot is working.

“Getting double-teamed was hard at first when I was younger,” Reiss said. “I would get frustrated because I didn’t know how to handle it. As I got older I learned how to handle it, and my teammates stepped up and hit shots. When they do that, it helps take the pressure off me.”

For opposing coaches, there are usually two main philosophes regarding trying to contain Reiss. You can either try and take everybody else of the game and know she’s going to get her points and hope your team can outscore her, or you can do everything you can to take her out of the game and make her teammates beat you.

Browerville attempted the former in the first round of the state tournament and Reiss scored 40 en route to a 77-50 win.

Russell-Tyler-Ruthon coach Darin Dahle faced the Vikings three times before season’s end and opted for the latter. Minneota came away with 67-28, 67-46 and 67-56 wins.

“We got better about it each time we faced her, but she’s just so dominant,” Dahle said. “She jumps so quick. We had to double-team her every time, trying to keep her off the boards. She just has such a great work ethic.”

While Reiss has plenty of natural talent, coaches, both around the area and at Minneota, have been impressed with how hard she works and wants to get better.

Even with the double-teams, Reiss has learned to find ways to get to the offensive glass and put the ball back in the hole. This adds yet another element that teams have to deal with.

“Sometimes teams worry so much about defense that she can get to the boards and grab offensive rebounds,” Johnston said. “That’s how she can get her points. She can jump and has great instincts for the ball.”

The Vikings are in position to be a strong contender for a state title again next season. While they are losing starters Shelby Corbin and Molly Hennen, they are getting another talented point guard in Heidi Pavek, who is transferring from Lincoln HI, as well as sharpshooter Stienessen.

Reiss is also returning next season for one final run at a state title, and the target will once again be on the Vikings’ backs.

If all goes well for the Vikings, she will run out from the locker room onto the biggest stage, underneath the brightest lights, and respond with unwavering success – just like she always has.