By KEVIN THOMPSON
Roger Thurlow never got a chance to see his grandfather or father coach basketball.
But in conversations, he learned some valuable lessons about coaching. Nothing complicated, but very helpful — get good with the fundamentals, and work with the players you have.
Heeding that advice, Thurlow has made Ingalls one of the top Class 1A-Division II girls programs in the state.
On Saturday, the Lady Bulldogs won the state title in Hays with a 37-22 victory over Norwich for the school's first-ever girls championship, and only the second in the school's sports history.
Thurlow has now earned his second-straight Telegram area girls coach of the year honor.
"The biggest thing (his father and he) talked about was you have to adapt to your personnel and not try to force things on them that they can't do," Thurlow said. "Instead, find their strengths and try to capitalize on those. That can take awhile for coaches to figure out.
"That's where I've been blessed the past few years, staying at Ingalls long enough to realize what the girls can do well."
Thurlow switched his philosophy four or five years ago. Before, he had his teams press full court. Now, it's a half-court trap that has revolutionized the program and resulted in three straight trips to the state tournament.
"I wanted to pressure the other team but not give up layups. With the full-court press, it would either be good for us or good for them," he joked. "With the trap, it can be good for us, but we can still get back on defense and not get hurt."
It took time for his teams to learn that concept, but with so many girls returning each year, the transition has been such that it's now the norm.
Defense is Ingalls signature, Thurlow said.
"That's definitely been our focus. Every practice starts with defense. Sometimes that's all we do is defense," he said.
Even with a system in place, coaches can't control graduating seniors. That means Thurlow's veterans have bought into the system, which trickles down to the younger players, so everybody knows the system works.
Seniors Tara Whipple and Deisy Estrada, along with junior Rebecca Wyatt, have been part of this system through high school, and they have been mentors to the younger girls.
They've run the system so much that they not only do their jobs, but help the younger ones understand roles.
"There's just a high basketball IQ with all these girls," Thurlow said. "There's also no selfishness, with every girl understanding what her role is."
It's not like teams didn't know what teams were going to run, he said. The Bulldogs ran no surprises. His girls just ran everything with great effort.
"Every team can say they have very talented athletes. But athletes don't win games; effort does," Thurlow said. "That's what these girls do; they work hard."
Every opponent has a different way to try to beat the Ingalls trap, but Ingalls has about six different ways to run it, Thurlow said.
The veterans have been able to teach the others, even during games as teams try to find ways to break them.
That selflessness transferred to the offensive end, as well, Thurlow said. The veterans would spot the open freshman and get the assist instead of trying to get the field goal. A lot of times it was the freshmen who led the scoring, he said.
"If you care about winning, whoever has the best possible shot, you go to that person. When you see your best players not wanting to do all the shooting but to do the best thing, the freshmen just assume that's what they all need to do," he added.
Going to state has become a recent trend for the Bulldogs. Three years ago, the team finished fourth in state. Last year, third.
That team lost three starters and a sixth player off the bench to graduation, or 60 percent of the team's scoring and half the rebounds. That team was every bit as talented and were a play or two from winning state, Thurlow said.
Still, Ingalls thought it could get back to state this year, even if they might not be as good, given the number of veterans graduating.
In fact, Thurlow talked to his three returners and told them to be prepared for a lot of losses early, but know that getting back to state was possible.
The Lady Bulldogs have improved their season win total in each of the last seven years. Seven years ago they had five wins, then seven, then nine. In the half-court trap era, they got to 15, then 16 and a state berth.
Last year, they made the quantum leap to 23, then the 26 (and undefeated) this season.
"I think we're tapped out," he laughed.
Team goals this year started with winning league, winning the league tournament, winning sub-state, then winning state.
Going undefeated — that was another story.
Winning every game never set in until sub-state, Thurlow said. It wasn't until then that it meant so much.
"I told them you're either going to win state undefeated, or you're not going to win state," he said. "And they just kept winning."
Despite finishing third last year, Ingalls wasn't even ranked in the first three state polls.
Earning the respect of the pollsters was a motivator for the Bulldogs, Thurlow said. It wasn't until Jan. 21 that they made it to the top, and they never relinquished that spot.
A tight school and community, Ingalls rallied around this team as they hosted sub-state and carried that to state, Thurlow said.
Ingalls won the spirit award at state last year for a reason, and that says a lot about the community.
It's something he reminded his girls at state this year, not to play hard just for the team but for all their supporters.
"I told them it would be one thing if you girls were just good. But you're good, and you do it the right way. You have great attitudes, and everyone could see that," Thurlow said.
The community wanted these girls to win. They had great character, he added.
"And the town showed its character backing them, spending a lot of money and time making a lot of trips to Hays," he concluded. "It was an awesome thing to see. 'Awesome' is kind of a generic term, but it describes this town well."