By KEVIN THOMPSON
When Roger Thurlow took over the Ingalls girls basketball program, he knew that he had a group of girls who were willing to work hard and go far.
In his fifth year (2010-11) at the helm, the Lady Bulldogs finished fourth in the Class 1A-Division II state tournament in Hays.
In his sixth year (2012), he was hoping for two more wins to claim the ultimate prize.
Instead, the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals for the second straight year, but came back on the final day to finish in third place despite going most of the season as the top-ranked team in the state.
It was about the only element in the game plan that didn't pan out, but the journey was enough to get him named as the Telegram's All-Area girls Coach of the Year.
And Thurlow will be the first to say it was all because of those girls.
The Bulldogs had almost the same group back this year as last but were at full strength with the return of forward Taylor Bleumer, who tore an ACL just before post-season play began last year. So things looked good for the Ingalls team this season.
"The goal was, first of all — like every team is going to say — is to play well every game and get a little better," he said. "But we also wanted to go back to state. We knew we were good enough to be there. As the year went on and we started developing as a team, we knew we were good enough to win it."
But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry, and that happened in the semifinal game, a 51-50 loss to Hutchinson-Central Christian.
That loss was one of two by a single point in a 22-3 season. Not bad for a team that didn't feature standout scorers. Statistically, the Bulldogs were pretty good, Thurlow said, but they didn't have one standout player.
"Even though we weren't an offensive team, we led the 1A-Division II girls in scoring," Thurlow explained, "and we allowed the fewest points, too."
They weren't a half-court set-offense type of team, he added. The Bulldogs scored the bulk of their points off their defense, and it was a plan that worked with this team.
Losing Bleumer last season made everybody step up their play, Thurlow said, and having her back full strength this year, along with a seasoned team, just made the Bulldogs that much tougher.
"Taylor came back strong this year, and everybody else came back with the confidence from last year," he said. "From the get-go, you could tell this was going to be a special group."
The loss to Central Christian at state, Thurlow said, was as tough a game to lose as he's ever been involved in, especially after leading most of the game and leading again late.
But his girls refused to quit after that. They came back the following night against a two-loss Wetmore team and took care of business.
"What I tried to get across to them before that game was that this team has been amazing all year," Thurlow said. "To go out without anything but an amazing performance would be a shame.
"They showed their true character at state, to come back from that tough a loss, he said."
That type of work ethic was the hallmark of the team, he said. Other teams might have had more talent, but this Bulldog team worked hard every game.
Unselfish play defines the Ingalls program, Thurlow said. They run a system that doesn't allow just one person to be a star. It's an all-around team effort.
"It all starts with defense, too," he said. "If you want to play, you have to play defense — hard, all night. Offense will come from your defense. They've learned that over the years."
This team will be hard to replace with four players graduating, Thurlow said.
"I will never forget this team," he said. "We could have not made it to state, but based on what they had done up to that point would have made me proud. But what they did in the postseason was just excellent."
The state trophy might say "third" on it," he said, "but for the length of the year, we were as good as anybody in the state."