By BRETT MARSHALL
It came as no surprise to Holcomb Lady Longhorns basketball coach Kelley Snodgrass that her 2011-12 edition was going to be highly competitive.
Last year, even with a senior-laden squad, Snodgrass had consistently played as many as eight, nine, sometimes 10 players — many underclassmen — as she watched her team reach the Class 3A sub-state semifinals against defending state champion TMP-Marian.
It took two overtimes before the Monarchs were able to overcome the Longhorns, and it was that bitter taste that has propelled this year's team to its successful run to the 3A state tournament, which begins for them on Thursday with a 3 p.m. tipoff against No. 2-seeded Burlington (22-1).
The Lady Longhorns, seeded No. 7 with a 17-6 record, enter the state tourney on a seven-game winning streak. They avenged an early season loss to 4A Colby and then powered their way through the sub-state, culminated with a 70-46 triumph over Cimarron in the championship game on Saturday.
"I think the bitter taste of that loss (to TMP) is something I told the girls who were coming back that I sure didn't want to have that same feeling again," Snodgrass said Monday. "I think our schedule has proven to be a big plus for us. I was a little concerned at first, but after we got through those early games, I knew we would be competitive at the 3A level."
That schedule started off in early December with a three-game set in the Southwest Classic where they faced Pueblo, Colo. East, Del City, Okla., and Garden City, schools with much larger enrollments. Del City was ranked among the top teams in Oklahoma's large-school classification.
"We learned a lot about ourselves in those games," Snodgrass said. "We were competitive (winning one, losing two with one of those a one-point overtime loss to Garden City) and I think the girls responded. When you play bigger schools, the game kind of slows down a little and you see things differently. We were able to see what kind of team we might become."
A team lacking in size, the Lady Longhorns compensate with an up-tempo game, both defensively and offensively, to create havoc for opponents. Sophomore Haley Heydman is the team's tallest starter at 5-9 while the other starters include guards Katie Pfeifer (5-5 junior), Kyshia Prieto (5-5 junior) and forwards Karissa Pena (5-7 junior) and Kylee Amos (5-7 sophomore).
That group has responded with a balanced offensive attack, making it difficult for teams to defend.
Pfeifer, the diminutive point guard, is like a quiet dagger waiting to strike. In the win over Cimarron, she knocked down four 3-pointers and scored a game-high 20 points. She averages a team-high 12 points. Prieto, her backcourt mate, averages 10.8 points while Pena also scores in double figures at 10.2 points. Amos and Heydman provide solid scoring support with averages of 8.9 and 6.2 points. Heydman scored 18 points in the Cimarron title game.
"On any given night, someone seemingly steps up for us," Snodgrass said. "Obviously, our size is a concern, but we've preached about boxing out and that is all about effort. We've gotten great effort from this group all season. They have a lot of heart, a lot of fight. For us to be successful, we want to get into a quick tempo game."
Going mostly seven deep, her top reserves include freshman Taylor Deniston (5-5 guard, 5.7 points) and sophomore Madison Taylor (5-6 forward, 3 points).
The appearance for the Lady Longhorns at the state tournament is just the fourth time in school history. Ironically, they last went in 2005, losing a first round game to Burlington, 55-39. The other two appearances came in 1991 (first round loss to Nemaha Valley) and in 1999 (first round loss to Northern Heights).
Snodgrass, though, has her own set of experiences at the state tournament in Hutchinson. In 1998, a senior at Cimarron High School, the then-Kelley Kramer started for the Lady Bluejays and helped her team to a state championship with a 58-52 overtime win against Conway Springs. It is that experience that she hopes to pass along to this youthful group of Longhorns, who don't have a single senior on their roster.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and many kids don't get this chance," Snodgrass said. "You've got to make the most of the moment. You're in front of a big crowd, in a big arena and you want to show up and play your game and see how it turns out. One thing is for sure, I expect this group to compete. They've done that all year."
In other first round games, it will be Hillsboro (21-2) vs. Caney Valley (18-5) at 4:45 p.m. in the other lower bracket contest from Holcomb. In the upper bracket, it will be Atchison Community (22-1) vs. Beloit (17-6) at 6:30 p.m. and Garden Plain (21-2) meeting Silver Lake (19-4) at 8:15 p.m. A Holcomb win puts them into Friday's 3 p.m. semifinal against the Hillsboro-Caney Valley winner.
See pairings, season results in Scoreboard, Page B2.