CLEARMONT — Prior to Arvada-Clearmont’s opening-round game at the regional tournament, the coaches surprised the Lady Panthers with a gift. A warm-up shirt draped across each one of the seats along the bench lay waiting for every player.

The shirt read, “We can, we will, we must,” providing one final reminder of what needed to take place for top-seeded AC.

“It means, we are capable of it, we know we can do it, and now we just have to go get the job done,” AC’s McKenna Auzqui said.

The Lady Panthers embodied those words for 96 minutes over the course of three days as AC held serve as a top seed, claiming the region championship and earning a No. 1 seed in the upcoming state tournament.

The title proved gratifying in more ways that one for AC. Sure, the victories and championship trophy are applaud-worthy, but taking into account what happened last season is what made seizing the crown that much sweeter.

The Lady Panthers entered last season’s regional tournament as a top seed fresh off an unbeaten conference season. AC had talent and confidence that it would play its way into the state tournament. That wasn’t the case, however. The Lady Panthers were upset in the opening round and bounced in a loser-out game the very next day. A celebratory season had turned sour quickly.

Upon winning the conference again this season, with another unblemished record, AC felt like it still had something to prove.

“A lot of people underestimated us coming into [the regional tournament], so we were kind of like the underdogs,” Auzqui said. “So that made winning it even better.”

The Lady Panthers blew by Guernsey-Sunrise — the same team that upset them last year in the opening round. The next day saw AC take care of a Hanna-Elk Mountain the same team that ended the Lady Panthers season a year ago. The championship game featured a Lingle-Ft. Laramie squad that held a halftime lead before AC flourished offensively in a 34-point second half performance.

“We had a lot of girls step up in a lot of different ways,” AC head coach Sarah Walker said. “… It was truly a championship game that had a bunch of high school girls that showed up and gave it their all. Regardless of the outcome, it was one of the best games that I’ve ever coached in terms of having fun and the kids embracing the moment.”

And it’s that embracement of the moment that the Lady Panthers will look to duplicate Thursday at 6 p.m. against No. 4-seeded Little Snake River in the opening round of the state tournament. This is AC’s first state tournament appearance since 2017, and many of the current players remember that experience two years ago. While it was rewarding, they want to write a different ending this time around.

“Two years ago, we went to state, and that was the highlight of our season. It didn’t matter what we did,” Auzqui said. “This year — coming in as the No. 1 seed and having the record that we do — we are really wanting to make a statement there, win some games, get into the championship game and maybe put another one of the banners back up.”

To do so, AC will have to first get by the Lady Rattlers who finished with a 10-11 record. They average 41 points per game and surrender 40 points per contest. Sami Moon paces LSR scoring 12 points per game.

The Lady Panthers pour in 45 points per game and allow 34 points per contest. Kristin Klaahsen leads AC averaging 12 points per contest.

The winner between the Lady Panthers and Lady Rattlers will advance to play the victor of the Hanna-Elk Mountain-St. Stephens game Friday in the semifinals.