By KEVIN THOMPSON
and BRETT MARSHALL
6-0, Sr., Forward. Ulysses
Kaylea Britton seemed, to opponents, to play bigger than her 6-0 listing in the program.
She also didn't fit the typical power forward as she could play inside, bring the ball up the court, and shoot the 3-pointer.
But the Lady Tigers always knew that teams preparing to play them would always key on the senior, and for good reason.
Britton averaged 16 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, as well as 1.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks.
Her season high in points was 38 in a home game against league rival Ulysses, which included a long, swished 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime. She also hit her high of 21 rebounds in that dominating performance.
It was an outstanding season — and career — for the Tiger senior, and it was enough to get her named as the Telegram's Player of the Year.
Britton had to play many roles in her four years as a starter. Sometimes she was the point guard, other times she was driving to the basket, and most of the time she was posting up low.
She was a threat in many ways.
"I like to play it all," she said. "I definitely like to play inside a lot more than I do the outside. But when you're hitting the three's (she shot 31 percent this season), you might as well."
The three-point shooting just happens, she explained, and it made her multi-dimensional.
"I knew this year I had to step up and play a big role because we had so many young players," she said. "I wanted to do it all and do what I could."
Teams would have to key on her as a post player first, but they always knew that she could be a scoring threat from outside.
Britton said one of her best attributes is that of an encourager.
"I'm always on my teammates, encouraging them to make them better," she said. "It would make myself better by helping them, too."
She also said she saw herself as a team leader who worked hard to become very versatile.
Those are attributes she will take across the country next season. Britton signed an NCAA Division I letter-of-intent in November with the University of Vermont to play for the Lady Catmounts.
Playing for Vermont is something that excites her, even though Burlington is 1,764 miles from Ulysses.
She is excited about a new coach who got to recruit her own players, and Britton likes the direction the program is headed.
"New coach, new style," she said. "I just knew it was going to be good for me."
Britton said the plan is to play the forward position where she hopes to be a scorer.
It's a long way from home, she acknowledges, but she will be focused on just one sport and leaning toward a communications major.
5-9, Sr., Forward. Ingalls
For four seasons, Taylor Bleumer dreamed of a state title.
As a freshman, she saw the potential for the Ingalls Lady Bulldogs to do just that. Her first two seasons she describes as building years.
"Every year we'd write down our goals, and each year it would be 'go to state' or 'get to state,'" she said.
Winning state would be the ultimate goal.
The reality kicked in last year when the Bulldogs finished fourth in the Class 1A-II state tournament. But an ACL injury kept her from participating but made her more determined for her senior season.
Riding that momentum, Ingalls was the top-ranked team most of the season, with a state trophy theirs for the taking.
However, a one-point semifinal loss ended that dream, and Bleumer and her teammates came back from a tough loss to claim the third place game the following day.
But it wasn't about the destination, she discovered, but the journey.
Bleumer said the teams of those first two seasons helped build a winning program at Ingalls.
More importantly, her teammates started building team chemistry.
"We started to mesh really well. We got along, and we learned what it takes to play together," she said. "We knew what everybody's strengths were."
That formula worked last year and completed itself this season.
Starting as a freshman wing, Bleumer, a 5-9 forward, led the team with 11.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. In 17 games of their 22-3 season, she scored in double figures, and in five games she had the double-double in points and rebounds.
Two of those games came in the state tournament in Hays, including 17 points and 17 boards in the third-place win against Wetmore and 11 and 11 versus Hutchinson-Central Christian in the semifinal loss.
Last year's fourth-place finish gave the Bulldogs a taste of their potential, so this year's loss was harder to take, Bleumer said. But the fact that they came back to win their final game shows a lot about the character of the team that they fought to the end.
"It was a team effort," she said. "For the third-place game, we said we're going out the way we always play and show everyone why we're here and why we should be in the (championship) game."
Having a target on their backs all season long was tough, too, she said.
"We felt pressure because we were up in the rankings all year long," Bleumer said.
Bleumer will now face the pressure of basketball at the next level as she will be playing for Southwestern College in Winfield, where she is planning to major in physical therapy and athletic training.
5-6, Sr., Guard. Cimarron
For the first three seasons of her high school career, Cimarron's Avery Burns just kept getting better and better as the point guard for the Lady Bluejays.
By the end of her junior year, averaging just over 17 points a game, she was the lone underclassman named to the 2011 Telegram All-Area team.
So it was no surprise when the 2011-12 season opened in December, that Burns was being mentioned as one of the best players in western Kansas.
And for the first five weeks of the season she lived up to the billing. Leading an undefeated Lady Bluejays team to an 8-0 record and a lofty state ranking in Class 3A, Burns was averaging 16.3 points per game and hitting on 45 percent of her field goals.
She was grabbing 5.4 rebounds despite her diminutive size and was stealing the ball just over four times per game while handing out 3 assists. She was making 82 percent of her free throws.
Her efforts to raise her skills to a higher level were paying off.
"I think any work you put in will make you better for the next season," Burns said of her early season play. "I saw the floor better, I could get better angles with passes and I was reading the other girls better. My passing and my defense had gotten better."
She recorded a rare double-double for a guard on Dec. 9 with a 15-point, 10-rebound effort in a win over Daryan Whaler's Sublette team. She had a season-high 25 points on Dec. 15 against Elkhart. In her final full game, she had 17 points, 4 rebounds, 5 steals and 5 assists in a victory over Larned.
Then, Burns' dream season and perhaps the state hopes of the Lady Bluejays, suffered a blow when she went in for a layup in the early minutes of a Jan. 13 game at Syracuse (Friday the 13th), planted her left foot and then collided with a defender.
"I had stolen the ball, went in for a layup after air-balling a 3-pointer," Burns recalled. "Then I stole it again, went in, planted my foot and got hit. Not on the knee, but on the shoulder. I heard it (knee) pop and it hurt really bad. The trainer there reassured me that he didn't think it was an ACL, so that gave me a little hope."
That hope, though, would later disappear. She tried to come back on Feb. 3, but the knee didn't hold up.
"I thought I would be able to play, but it just didn't work out," said Burns, fighting back tears in recalling the difficult time.
Following successful surgery, Burns is now on the mend. After watching from the sidelines, she is even more determined to make her dreams of playing Division I basketball come true. For the next two seasons, she will play at Seward County, planning to sign with the Lady Saints in early April.
"The doctor told me originally 10 months and the surgery went perfect," Burns said of the timeline for returning. "Now they're thinking 8 months and I'm gonna push for 6 and see what I can do then. By the time our practices begin (Oct. 1) I hope to be 100 percent."
5-4, Jr., Guard. Holcomb
Katie Pfeifer has been an integral part of Holcomb's success the past three seasons.
Listed at a diminutive 5-4, the junior guard has found other ways to make her presence felt on the court.
Pfeifer averaged 12 points and three rebounds a game this season, while dishing out 3.1 assists and stealing 2.1 balls a game.
For the 17-7 Lady Longhorns, Pfeifer's role was that of so many others — just be a team player and perform.
Pfeifer said the team goal was to have a good season despite having no seniors on the roster, but there was no pressure to do as well as they did. But the players themselves knew after a short time just how successful they could be.
"We weren't expected to do much since we'd lost so many people (from the previous squad)," she said. "I think we knew after a couple weeks of practice that, if we wanted to, we could have a really good season if we worked hard."
Her 3-point shooting was just one key to Holcomb's success. But the junior said that the team had a number of weapons. What they lacked in size, they made up for in speed, team shooting, and aggressiveness.
But that style met its match at state when the Longhorns lost in the first round. The fact they got there was a big deal, Pfeifer said, but it was their first time.
"It was a little nerve-racking for us," she said. "Last year we were supposed to go to state, but when you lose in a tough double-overtime game like we did, we didn't want that to happen."
On their road to state, in signature wins, the Longhorns knocked off undefeated and top-ranked Southwestern Heights, then they beat them again in sub-state and defeated state-ranked Cimarron in the sub-state championship game.
Confidence was the key to those wins, something coach Kelley Snodgrass instills in every player.
"One of her signature phrases is that basketball is a game of runs," Pfeifer said of her coach's influence. "If we get down, we know it's because they had their run and soon it will be our turn."
It was that confidence that helped bond the team during the season, Pfeifer said. The three juniors would be hard on themselves, individually, but Snodgrass said that showed and was hurting the younger players. So Pfeifer said they had to change the focus toward being positive and encouraging. It worked.
And it should keep working.
"Every year since I've been a freshman we've always gone a step further, so I hope it continues next year," she said.
6-3, Sr., Center. Sublette
Daryan Whaler had experienced enough hardship during her first three years of playing high school sports.
That's what happens when you've suffered three torn ACLs, two on the same knee, and missed most of two full seasons of basketball.
So when she finished her senior season recently, injury-free, it was the culmination of a dream-come-true year.
Despite her team's 12-11 record, it was Whaler who carried much of the Lady Larks' offensive load in the final half of the season when the team's leading scorer — junior Riley Matteson — also went down with an ACL tear.
Becoming the focal point of the team's offense, Whaler, a 6-3 true post player, responded with her best season by averaging 15 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.
To appreciate her performance, you have to go back and understand what she missed in her four years of high school.
She tore the ACL in her left knee between her freshman and sophomore years. She played the first month of her sophomore season before tearing the right ACL and missing the rest of the year. She rehabbed and was released for her junior season. She made it through most of that campaign but re-tore the right ACL in the sub-state tournament, thus causing her to once again rehab and hope to be ready for her senior season.
"It was really hard, a lot of people told me that I was stupid for coming back," Whaler recalled of her decision to play. "I don't think they understand that basketball has been part of my life since I can remember."
During her final year, Whaler was nearly unstoppable on the inside, recording 10 double-doubles in points and rebounds. Her season high of 34 points came in the opening round of the Class 2A sub-state against Kiowa County, a game the Lady Larks won and in which she also had 16 rebounds and a season/career-best 8 blocked shots.
She had a season-high 18 rebounds against Moscow. She scored in double figures in 18 of the team's 23 games.
"I was kind of timid my junior year and didn't really know how to post up," Whaler said. "I had missed so much earlier compared to what other girls had and so my improvement wasn't as good. I learned some new techniques this year."
When looking back on her senior season, Whaler said it couldn't have finished much better, other than the team making the state tournament.
"Coming back and playing my senior year and making it through the whole season, that was my goal," Whaler said. "Making all-league (Hi-Plains unanimous pick) and making all-area, well, that's a dream come true."