By BRETT MARSHALL
Tom Farmer and Andy Gillen are first-year head girls basketball coaches at Greeley County and South Gray High Schools in Tribune and Montezuma.
Their teams qualified for this week's Class 1A state tournament in Hays with sub-state championships Saturday in Colby and Larned.
That's about the only similarities the two coaches have as their respective teams head into the quarterfinals on Wednesday at Gross Memorial Coliseum at Fort Hays State University in Hays.
Farmer, a Tribune native, was a starting guard for the 1968 Class B state championship team. Gillen has learned his trade as the head coach the previous two years at Ulysses where his teams were 26-22. His father, Lee, was the athletic director and former coach (now girls coach and athletic director at Hugoton). Gillen graduated from Cozad, Neb. High School and attended college at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
As the two schools prepare for their 3 p.m. (South Gray vs. Wilson) and 8:15 p.m. (Greeley County vs. St.Paul) games, they will be under the microscope of the state tourney for different reasons.
It will be Greeley County's first trip to state since 2003 when the Lady Jackrabbits finished fourth, their best ever. South Gray makes its third straight visit after having won the 2008 championship and finishing second a year ago.
Over the past three seasons, the Lady Rebels have lost just two games and return four starters from that 2009 second-place team. South Gray is unbeaten at 24-0, ranked No. 1 in all the state polls and are seeded No. 1. Greeley County is 19-5. It's only losses were to league rival Weskan (three times), Scott City and Wichita Sunrise (both at the Scott City Invitational).
"I think we've played our best basketball of the year in the past two weeks, especially at the sub-state last weekend," Farmer said. "The energy level is high, we've been shooting the ball well and the scoring has been spread around. Everyone is contributing."
The Jackrabbits rolled over their final two sub-state foes, toppling Lucas-Luray in the finals 57-36, after dispatching Northern Valley 65-47 in the semis.
"After we beat Sharon Springs on their home floor in the regional semifinals, things really changed for us," Farmer said. "We've played as well as we have all year long and we want to be peaking going into this week."
For Gillen, nothing less than a state title has been expected of this group they walked off the Gross Coliseum floor last year on the short end of a 46-35 loss to St. John.
"There has been so much expectation of success, not only by the players themselves, but by the community," Gillen said. "When you win at a certain level, sometimes the fun of playing gets lost in the process and that's one thing I've tried to pass along to the girls, is to have fun and enjoy the moment. These girls have worked very hard for so long, that any success they get, they've really earned it. I've just been along for the ride and it has been a lot of fun for me to see these girls work hard for what they have."
South Gray's girls are paced by senior guard Brigit Hesser, senior forward Kayla Thomas and junior point guard Mikayla Skidmore. But Gillen can also count on a younger Thomas, sophomore Hannah (5-foot-10) and senior forward Baylei Zehr (who hit seven 3-pointers in one playoff game earlier).
"We're blessed with a great deal of natural talent and ability that these girls have developed over many years," Gillen said.
While the program has been build into powerhouse over the last three years, South Gray saved its closest game of this season for the sub-state final on Saturday in Larned where they slipped past a talented Pratt-Skyline team, 47-45.
"It was one of those games where nothing really went right for us (24 percent shooting) yet they found a way to win the game," Gillen said. "Kayla put the team on her back and carried them that night, but we've had others do the same thing in other games."
Between the three top performers for Gillen, they combine to average between 45 to 50 points a game.
"For most of the season, we've had at least two of them playing at a high level every night out," Gillen said. "The girls are excited about the opportunity now that we've gotten there. I think the game the other night I sensed that the pressure was felt within the group. There's been a lot of expectations. I think we learned a lot about that and managed to win and it should help us this week."
For Greeley County's Farmer, he will rely on his eight-player rotation to divvy up the scoring. Senior guard Kelli Crittenden is the team's leading scorer, averaging around 13 points a game. But he can also point to senior Madison Moser who had 15 points in the sub-state title game, junior Shalee Myers and sophomore Kelcy Crittenden (11 points in the sub-state final) as other potential leading scorers.
"Everyone contributes, everyone is involved," Farmer said. "They don't care who is the leading scorer, they just want to go out and win. Nobody's asked me about their stats this year."
Farmer was the head girls coach at Manhattan High School in 1973, the first year for high school girls sports, and his squad lost in the opening round of state. It will be Gillen's first experience on the bench in a state tourney atmosphere.
For both coaches there is one goal in mind come Wednesday through Friday — a state championship.
"I remember 1968 and it was big for me," Farmer said. "The girls asked me today at practice what it was like. I told them it was a life-long memory and for them to have fun and play hard because you can throw out the records once you get to state. Everyone has a good team."
For Gillen, it is about seeing the Rebels finish off an unbeaten season.
"They were very good before I got here, so this experience is all about them," Gillen said. "Nobody's worked any harder than they have."