By KEVIN THOMPSON
The town of Dighton has a double-good reason to celebrate this week.
Both its boys and girls basketball teams are going to the Class 1A-Division II state basketball tournament in Hays.
Both teams won their sub-state games at Palco last weekend. The Lady Hornets took out top-seed Natoma 44-35, while the top-seeded boys knocked off host Palco 57-52.
The girls are seeded seventh and will face No. 2 seed Norwich (22-1) on at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Gross Memorial Coloseum on the campus of Fort Hays State University.
The boys are seeded No. 6 and will play No. 3 seed White City (19-3) at 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
The Dighton girls have appeared in the state tournaments six times, the last time in 2009, when they finished fourth under current coach Amy Felker, who is in her 11th season with the Hornets.
The boys' last trip to state was in 1994, losing in the first round in Class 2A. Their highest finish was in 1992, when they finished fourth in 2A. Their first trips were in 1980 and 1981 as a Class 1A school.
"The key all year has been our defense, holding people under their season averages. Our girls really take pride in trying to shut down another team, and our defense definitely does that," said Felker of her Lady Hornets.
Pressure man-to-man has been their defensive norm, Felker said. They aren't deep enough to go full-court press, but they are very effective in the zone.
Offensively, the Hornets average 42 points and 29 rebounds per game. With no seniors on the squad, juniors have emerged as the team leaders.
Leslie Speer averages 12.2 points and 7.8 boards a game. Shambrey Budd adds 9.5 and 6.7, and Liz Heath is at 6.7 and 6.3.
Speer has been a go-to girl who plays big inside, Felker said. But she doesn't force her shots. If teams double-team her, she trusts that her teammates will be open and gets them the ball.
"She's a versatile player. She can go 15-foot and shoot from the elbows, but she also can post up," she said.
Budd likes to attack the basket strongly, and is a great offensive rebounder, Felker said.
"One thing I really like about her is the defensive end," Felker said. "She is a tremendous help-side player. Our girls know that if we over play and work hard on defense, she'll be back there to help us out."
Heath, who started as a guard her freshman year and is now a post player, is a great defender, Felker said,
"Defensively I always give her a hard job," she said. "In the championship game against Natoma, she guarded their go-to girl, who scores 18-20 points a game. We held her to one 2-point field goal and no 3-pointers. When Liz gets a job, she's going to get that job done."
No seniors means the whole team returns next year, but they've also played together for so long, they know each other very well, Felker said.
"It's really fun to watch their chemistry and how well they work together," she said. "They trust and care about each other, and that makes our team a lot stronger."
Felker's squad doesn't do anything fancy or complex, she said. They rely on being solid and fundamentally sound.
"We're pretty down to the basics. We just do a few things and do them right," she said. "We don't do anything special. We just take care of business."
It's hard for a team to focus on one player because Dighton has so many who will step up. Her girls are unselfish as to who scores on any given night, she said.
"We're still working on fine-tuning everything that we have, making sure it's ready to go," Felker said. "We're talking over defensive strategies — how we're going to stop them, who we're going to stop. We're going to be ready."
The Hornets (15-7) started the year at 7-1 before settling in at 8-6 in the second half of the season, but it was good enough to finish ranked 7th in Class 1A-II at the end of the regular season. Part of the second-half slide was due to a tough schedule in conference, coach Earl Steffens said, but that has also made his team tougher.
Senior Ryan Kuhlman, a 6-3 shooting guard, leads Dighton with 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He has been a four-year starter, and earlier this season scored his 1,000th career point.
"He's had an exceptional career for us. He's like a coach on the floor," Steffens said. "He's one of those kids who practices hard all the time. You just couldn't ask more of an individual than he has given us."
Junior Isaac Alinor adds 11.2 and 6.3 per game. A three-year starter, he has taken over the point guard work for the Hornets and can play inside and outside.
Senior post Dirk Torson (6-2) has stepped up in the past few weeks, Steffens said.
"He's given us a strong inside presence. He goes hard to the basket. He's turned into a tough rebounder, steadily improving every game," he said. "He's a leader and a hard worker."
Juniors Matthew Mulville and Mathew Barnett average 12.4 boards a game between them.
Mulville can score inside and out, as well as rebound. Barnett is a 6-4 post transfer who has learned his role in the system and is a key presence in the paint.
Junior Ryan Horn missed two seasons with a knee injury, but he has worked his way into the starting lineup. He's been playing point in the zone, can hit threes, and handles the pressure well, Steffens said.
Trevor Bollinger is a senior captain who has worked really hard all year, and comes off the bench in a solid way, Steffens said.
Dighton likes to mix things up when its playing defense.
"We don't stick to one thing. We teach fundamental defense and try to play a defense that we think will give the opponent the most problems. The kids are great at making adjustments and understand what we're trying to do," Steffens said.
"I've got a great bunch of kids who work hard for me. It's really nice to see that maturity level taking place. I think they truly understand the team concept."
This and that
Both Steffens and Felker know how exciting it is to have qualified both teams to state, not only for the school, but the entire town (population 1,038) and Lane County.
"It's good for the community. Anybody knows that, in these small towns, the main school activity in winter is basketball," Steffens said. "We've had excellent, excellent fans over the last number of years, and this is really fun for the town and our kids. It's really good for our young kids to be able to see this kind of emotion and excitement and success."
Felker echoed those sentiments. The dual entries adds even more enthusiasm to the week.
"It's really exciting that both teams are going and we can share the experience together. Our school has a lot of pride. The town is very supportive. A lot of them even made that long drive to Palco (for sub-state) on Saturday, and I know they'll follow us to Hays this week, too," she said.
School is going to be dismissed early both Wednesday and Thursday, Felker said. It will give everyone a chance to experience as many of the state tournament games as they can.
"We're going to try to let this be a building of tradition. We want everybody to get the excitement and experience of going to state," she said.
It also will be a chance for the school to put itself on display, with a number of groups performing.
We're taking our band. Our dance team gets to perform. Our choir gets to perform the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' Almost everybody in our school is participating," Felker said. "It's really exciting for the town of Dighton to go up and watch a lot of different people show their talents."