Freshman phenom thriving in starting role for Olympians

When Columbus East coach Danny Brown witnessed Whitley Rankin hit six 3-pointers in a row during an open gym, he knew she was going to be something special.

The Olympians already were stacked at the guard position, led by juniors Addy Galarno and Britney Ballard, and Brown wanted to get Rankin some experience handling the ball at the junior varsity level first. So the freshman spent much of her game time playing JV and would play a little varsity from time to time before Brown completely made the switch.

Rankin’s breakout game came Jan. 10 against Bedford North Lawrence, when she came off the bench to hit three 3-pointers. Brown decided to give Rankin an even larger role after witnessing her nine-point performance.

Two days later, East traveled to Greensburg when Rankin closed her eyes, said a quick prayer and calmed her nerves as she began warming up for her first game as a varsity starter.

“We were just standing there watching the end of the JV game, and I was a little scared, Rankin said. “Once the ball gets tipped, it’s all good and you just play basketball.”

Thirty-two minutes and nine points later, Rankin had hit three 3-pointers for the second consecutive game. Brown said she kept improving to where he had to make the move to go with the three-guard lineup.

Rankin is averaging just over eight points a game as a starter and scored her career high of 12 points on four 3-pointers against Southport.

Now that she has few more games under belt, Rankin is more comfortable and confident in her new role than she was when she first stepped on the court against Greensburg. She credits much of confidence to her teammates, especially Ballard.

Ballard gave Rankin a few pointers on the court when Rankin played with her and some of the other starters in AAU basketball during the summer. Rankin was not used to some of the varsity plays when she first switched over, and Ballard has been there to help her work through them.

Ballard said she believes it is important for any freshman to have the support of her older teammates as she continues to grow, and that is why she wants to make sure she is there for Rankin.

“I’ve known Whitley for awhile, and I love her as a player,” Ballard said. “Seeing her grow this season has been a great opportunity for her as a player and for us as a team.”

She has proven herself to be a dominate outside threat, but Rankin is no slouch on the defensive end either. Brown used her as a key defensive player even before she started playing varsity full time and said he does not hesitate to put her on the toughest offensive players, including Martinville junior Kayana Traylor who Brown believes is a future Mrs. Basketball candidate.

Rankin forced five steals and had one block during the Martinsville game. She racked up two more steals in the final regular season game in the win against Seymour.

One thing that impresses Brown the most about Rankin is her ability to understand the game as well as any senior he has coached. He will be looking to use her to spread the floor during sectional play as an extra shooter in the staring lineup.

East is going into the postseason having lost two of its past three games, but Brown said beating Seymour in Saturday’s regular-season finale gave his players a lift in their confidence heading into Tuesday’s game against Bloomington South at Columbus North.

The Olympians are expecting Rankin to offer a major contribution to this year’s postseason because Ballard said whenever East needs a shot or somebody to bring the ball up, they can always count on Rankin.

Rankin’s new role is a big step for an underclassman, but she is very appreciative of her coaches and teammates for believing in her the way they do.

“It’s a challenge knowing that you’re younger, and you’re going against a really good player,” Rankin said. “I know that if I get tired, or if I get beat, my teammates are there to help me out, and I’m just glad I can fill that role for the team.”

East was fatigued in the first match-up against the Panthers, falling 51-37 in its fifth game in three days. The Olympians will be better rested tonight, and Ballard believes having Rankin in the starting lineup brings more depth to the team the second time around.

Bloomington South hit seven 3-pointers in the first matchup, but East has an additional 3-point threat this time.

“She picks her spots,” Brown said. “She knows when to shoot and when to pass. I think she is going to be a big-time player before she is done.”

Whitley Rankin

Name: Whitley Rankin

School: Columbus East

Year: Freshman

Height: 5-foot-4

Position: Guard

PPG in six starts: 8.3

Author photo
Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.