By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

When the 2010 basketball season ended for the Ingalls Lady Bulldogs, head coach Roger Thurlow knew a few challenges his youthful team would face in the 2011 season.

He knew would be playing in the difficult Class 1A Southern Plains/Iroquois Activities Association while being forced to find two new starters to go along with returners Janae Droste, Tara Whipple and Kiley Schmidt.

Thurlow's team would also not have the advantage of playing a soft schedule in the old Santa Fe Trail League, making the possibility of duplicating or improving on last season's 15-6 record a tall order.

Now, a year later, Thurlow has seen some of those unknowns come to fruition.

And at 14-9, the Lady Bulldogs will get to see their season continue on Wednesday when they open first-round play in Hays at the Class 1A-Division II state tournament. Their tipoff time of 3 p.m. against Beloit-St. John's/Tipton Catholic will be the first for the newest classification in Kansas high school basketball.

"The split (of 1A) doesn't diminish what the girls have accomplished," Thurlow said on Sunday, less than 24 hours after his girls had defeated top-seeded Bucklin, 36-33, in the Moscow sub-state. "We had a tough year, played in one of the toughest leagues, and I think the schedule we got through; we came out playing good basketball. Our record might not indicate it, but we're legitimate."

In their first season competing in the SPIAA, the Bulldogs had to play two teams ranked in the top 10 of 1A-Division I in South Central and Spearville, and finished with a 6-7 league mark.

"Did we benefit with the split of the class?," Thurlow asked. "Probably so. There are definitely pros and cons. The bottom line is there is a division for the smallest of schools and I'm excited for the girls. They'll get great experience."

In talking with other people about the split of the smallest class, Thurlow said it was clear the smallest schools were having a difficult time qualifying for the eight-team field at Hays in previous years.

Four of those eight qualifying teams from 2010 are now in Division II with three in Division I and one moved up to Class 2A this season.

"What the state has gone with is because the smaller schools wanted an equitable chance to compete," Thurlow said. "I'm not worried about that, I'm focused on getting the team ready. I'm not saying we're gonna win, but I feel good about the fact that we've played some tough teams and that has prepared us."

Three weeks prior to the end of the season, the Lady Bulldogs were dealt a blow when junior forward Taylor Bleumer, the team's second leading scorer at 9.9 points, went down with a season-ending ACL tear.

"We certainly have missed her, but we've had others step up in her absence," Thurlow said.

Sophomore point guard Tara Whipple proved to be a pleasant surprise for Thurlow's squad. With a season average of 7.9 points, Whipple averaged nearly 13 points per game following Bleumer's injury.

"She's exactly what you want in a point guard good ballhandler, good shooter, good passer and defends well," Thurlow said of Whipple, who averages four assists and 2.6 steals per game.

The biggest, and most pleasant addition to the team has been freshman Rebecca Wyatt, who leads the Lady Bulldogs in scoring at 11.1 points per game on 82 percent shooting from the field.

Junior guard Janae Droste, averaged 7.3 points this season while Schmidt has averaged 4.4 points.

A victory on Wednesday would put the Lady Bulldogs into Friday's semifinal against the winner of the Hutchinson Central Christian-Logan game.

See pairings, Scoreboard, Page B2.