By BRETT MARSHALL
The Dighton Lady Hornets perhaps surprised people by qualifying for the Class 1A-Division II state tournament in 2013.
And a lot of those same people would say they were not surprised one iota that the 2014 Lady Hornets are headed back to Hays and Gross Memorial Coliseum for an encore performance.
That group a year ago, comprised of all underclassmen starters, made an early exit from the tourney, losing to eventual runner-up Norwich (56-35) in the quarterfinals.
This time, the Lady Hornets go in as the tourney's No. 5 seed with a 16-5 record and will take on Argonia (19-4) at 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
For veteran head coach Amy Felker, it will be a different team with a different attitude, with a different set of skills that will be off to Hays for this year's tournament.
"This year, I don't expect the nerves to be as bad," said Felker, now completing her 12th season at the helm. "They know what to expect. We played in the Coliseum last year. This bunch played in the state volleyball in the fall in the same place. They're ready to just go out and play."
This year, that relatively young group are now veterans, and the Hornets are led by 5-10 senior forward Leslie Speer, who averages team highs of 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds. But there's plenty of support to go around.
Seniors Shambrey Budd (5-4, G) and Liz Heath (5-10, Sr.) average 8.1 and 7.1 points, respectively, to go along with 6.6 and 6 rebounds. Senior Diamond Brown chips in with 3.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
Sophomore Kiara Budd (5-4, G), another returning starter, averages 8 points and 1.7 assists.
Two freshman newcomers have been integrated into the rotation and provide more depth, more shooting and more rebounding for Felker.
Those two are Jordan Speer (5-10, F/C), younger sister to Leslie and Sara Cramer (5-4, G). Those two average 6.5 and 4.8 points. The younger Speer averages 4 rebounds while Cramer hands out 2.2 assists.
The defense, which Felker says her team hangs its hat on for success, averages 9.6 steals and yields just 32.4 points. The five losses have come against Class 1A-II power Hoxie three times, state-ranked and 2013 Div. II champion Ingalls and Class 2A Ness City, which lost in its sub-state title game. Those five teams averaged 61 points in handing the Hornets their setbacks. In the 16 wins, teams have averaged just 23.6 points.
It is that tough schedule that Felker is banking on to help the Hornets at the state tourney this time around.
"We''ve had some tough teams to face, but I think it's made us a better team. Our one goal has been to get better each game, and we know we've worked hard to get back here."
It is, though, the defense that Felker believes will be critical to the team's success in the tournament.
"We just try and play tough defense all the time," Felker said. "Offensively, we're stronger (avg. 52 points), and we're really balanced. We're better on the perimeter shooting with a couple of girls who can shoot the 3s, and we've still got the bigger girls inside."
How They Got There: In Tribune sub-state, defeated Weskan 47-16 in semifinals; defeated Wallace County/Sharon Springs 49-31 in championship game.
Of Note: Freshman Sara Cramer is the third daughter of Dighton boys coach Dean and wife Cindi to play for Felker. Oldest sister, Kaylee, was a Telegram All-Area first team pick in 2009, and sister Katren graduated in 2012.
Who: Dighton Lady Hornets
2013-14 Record: 16-5
Where: Gross Memorial Coliseum, Hays
When: Thursday through Saturday
Quarterfinal game: Thursday, 8:15 p.m. vs. Argonia (19-4)
Head Coach: Amy Felker (12th season)
League: Northwest Kansas
Key Players: Leslie Speer, 5-10, sr. (11.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Shambrey Budd, 5-6, sr. (8.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg); Liz Heath, 5-10, sr. (7.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Kiara Budd, 5-4, so. (8.0 ppg, 1.7 apg; Diamond Brown, 5-7, sr. (3.6 ppg, 2.7 apg; Jordan Speer, 5-10, fr. (6.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg; Sara Cramer, 5-4, fr. (4.8 ppg, 2.2 apg; Dakota Hoffman, 5-6, so. (2.0 ppg, 1.2 rpg.
State Tournament History:
Appeared three times in Class 2A (1984-85-86). Lost in title games to Canton-Galva in 1984 and 1986. Appeared in Class 1A tournament in 1989, 2002, 2009 (lost to Centralia in 3rd place game) and 2013 in Class 1A-II (lost to Norwich, 56-35, in 1st round).