By BRETT MARSHALL
When Andy Gillen accepted the head girls basketball coaching position last June, he was under no illusion of what the expectation from the community would be for the 2009-2010 season.
Win a state 1A championship for the second time in three seasons.
"There was a sense of joy for sure when the game ended and we had won," Gillen said of his team's dramatic 57-51 overtime victory against Argonia to earn the state title. "And a sense of relief. To be honest, I knew as well as anybody that anything less than a state title and people would see it as an unsuccessful season. That made everything just that much more difficult. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations not just from the community but from around the state as well. But these girls came to practice every day, put all of the other pressures aside, and worked so hard to get to this point. They earned it. When the buzzer sounded they could just let loose with their emotions."
Gillen's 27-0 Lady Rebels earned him The Telegram's Area Girls Coach of the Year award after having been at Ulysses for the two previous seasons.
"There was a lot of change for them (girls) but they continued to gel and get better and they stuck together," Gillen said of the team that loses four seniors (Brigit Hesser, Baylei Zehr, Kayla Thomas and Shaelyn Kisner) as well as sophomore starter Hannah Thomas. "They've had a remarkable run for the past three years and for these seniors to have three coaches in four years is nothing short of amazing as to how they've handled it."
Gillen said he could also appreciate how difficult winning a state championship is after having a close battle with Pratt-Skyline in the sub-state finals (47-45 victory) and then narrow wins over Wilson (60-55) and defending champion St. John (34-30) in the semifinals. "A possession here, a possession there and they're different and the outcome could have been something different. The thing about this group is that they just find ways to win."
Gillen said while the girls handled all of the outer pressures well, there were, like most teams, daily issues to deal with.
"There's so many things that go into it," Gillen said. "This wasn't easy by any stretch, but the girls have done a great job of focusing on what they have control over. It's been a great ride to be on and I couldn't be more thrilled to be a part of it.
"They've had a great run (81-2 over three seasons) and we likely won't see anything like it for a while," Gillen said. "It's been pretty amazing."