By The Telegram
Since she was in the third grade, South Gray's Mikayla Skidmore has played basketball with some of her lifelong friends who were a year older — players such as Brigit Hesser, Kayla Thomas and Shaelyn Kisner.
When this basketball season tipped off in early December, Skidmore, a junior, knew this would be her last time around to share the joys of playing together.
Skidmore and her teammates made the most of the opportunity by going undefeated with 27 wins and capturing their second Class 1A state championship in three seasons. And it was Skidmore, playing point guard, that was the ignition starting the Lady Rebels offense.
"She just makes everything happen for us when she's on the floor," first-year South Gray coach Andy Gillen said. "She just has a knack for getting everyone involved."
Skidmore, who averaged 15.2 points a game (second on the team), has been named The Telegram's Area Girls Player of the Year. It is the second consecutive year a South Gray player has been tabbed with the honor, last year being Kayla Thomas, a second-team choice this season.
"We just didn't want to lose and we worked very hard to get to the championship game," Skidmore said. "Everybody stepped up and did their job."
In addition to her scoring, Skidmore's well-rounded floor game included 5.0 assists, 4.2 steals and 3.0 rebounds a game. But it was defense where she saw the most improvement in her game from sophomore to junior seasons.
"I think I got a little faster, a little quicker," Skidmore said. "The thing about defense is that it turns into offense and that's what we really like. But without my teammates, things don't happen. They make me better."
Kaylee Cramer may not have been on a state-contending team — Dighton went 13-9 and lost in the regional semifinals. But there's no doubt she has what it takes to be named to The Telegram's All-Area first team.
"This is pretty big for me, especially since I am a senior this year," said Cramer, a three-time All-Area pick. "We didn't go as far as we would have liked to have gone, but for what we had, I was really proud with how far we got and what our record was at the end."
Cramer was the leading scorer in The Telegram area with 21.6 points per contest and shot 54 percent from the field. She also averaged 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals along with 2.9 assists.
"I'm really impressed with this year because there were some games that I really surprised myself," Cramer said. "But I was able to do as much as I could with my situation."
That situation was having to go through rehabilitation from a torn ACL she suffered in the Class 1A consolation game last year.
"I didn't know how this season would go because of my knee," Cramer said. "I didn't know if I would be the same as last year or if I could be better. I just kept pushing myself every game to get back to being to the level that I wanted to be at."
The Dighton senior, who was on the all-area honorable mention team for volleyball, will head to Pratt Community College in the fall — to play volleyball, not basketball.
"I'm not going to play basketball, which my family doesn't like that too much because they're all basketball fans," Cramer said. "My mom is the only one that did volleyball. ... But at first, I'm going to focus on volleyball and if I don't really like how that goes, then we'll see if maybe the basketball team down there may want me."
When Breanna Gottschalk laced up her shoes on the first day of practice in November, she knew she and her Lady Longhorn teammates would be an improved team. Her freshman and sophomore seasons Holcomb had finished under .500, but they knew this year could be better.
How much better turned into a very pleasant surprise. After starting 8-0, Holcomb finished 16-5.
Gottschalk was a big reason for it. Her numbers will prove it.
The 5-foot-10 junior post averaged 16 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals a game, shot 42 percent from 3-point land, and hit 72 percent of her free throws.
"We worked hard in practice and we had the dedication to go out and do it," she said. "We had success this year, and we are expecting that next year, too,"
A number of juniors and a couple of freshmen return.
The numbers were nice, Gottschalk said, but it was how she filled the role of a leader that she most embraces.
"Coach (Kelly Snodgrass) always tells me that everyone looks up to me and that I need to go out there and be an example," she said.
When she first started playing the game, though, she said she was quiet and shy, but over time, she got more serious about basketball. It helped that her skills improved, too, so she could be a more effective player at both ends of the floor.
"I like to play as a team," she said. "I don't like to be selfish."
But if it comes to where she has to take over, "I know how to do it," she said.
Having such a successful season, but losing in the first round of sub-state doesn't sit well with Gottschalk. She said it will serve as a motivator for her and her teammates to work for a state berth next year.
In four seasons, Syracuse's Kylee Hedberg has built an impressive basketball resume.
She scored 1,282 points and grabbed 834 rebounds. She was a starter all four years. She was all-league three times and all-area twice.
This year she averaged over 20 points and 12 rebounds a game and had 20 double-doubles in 23 games.
The only thing missing from that resume would be a trip to the state tournament, something that eluded the Lady Bulldogs, but something they almost did this season, losing in the finals of sub-state to finish 13-10.
Hedberg said she is not any better of a player than anyone else. Instead, she credits a simple formula for her success.
"I worked hard at practice," she said. "When I was at practice, it was time to practice because that's what I was there for. When it was game time, it was game time, and I was ready to go."
The simple formula helped pay off this season. Syracuse played a number of Class 3A schools and gave them good games. And though only 13-10 this season, she said the tougher schedule helped get them as far as they did.
Following graduation, that work ethic will be put to use in other ways. The senior is headed to Wichita State University next year to study nursing.
Brigit Hesser was the leading scorer on the top Class 1A girls basketball team this year. Hesser averaged 16 points a game (shooting 41 percent from the field) to go with 4.6 rebounds, 4.3 steals and 3.2 assists.
Hesser helped the Lady Rebels reach a perfect season, 28-0, and a second state title in three years — and a runner-up finish with a 27-1 record last year.
"I definitely didn't like that feeling last year," Hesser said. "So it was nice coming away with the title this year."
But unlike the title won in her sophomore season, Hesser holds this one at a higher level.
"Just because we went undefeated this year," Hesser said. "We only had just one loss in my sophomore year, but it was nice to go undefeated and it be my senior year."
In the title game against Argonia, the senior was second on the team in scoring with 12 points — behind Mikayla Skidmore's game-high 18 points.
Hesser will traveling across the state to compete at the next level. The South Gray senior will play at Pittsburg State University.
"It's going to be harder," Hesser said. "I'm definitely going to have to work harder. But I love basketball enough to work that hard."