By BRETT MARSHALL
When the Ingalls Lady Bulldogs qualified for the 2011 Class 1A-Division II girls state basketball tournament, they were one of the schools who were looking for Cinderella's glass slipper to wear to the big dance.
That's what happens when you go with a modest 14-9 record, but then surprise many by finishing fourth in just the second appearance at a state tournament in school history. The first had been 27 years earlier in 1984.
Now, fast forward to 2012 and the Lady Bulldogs punched their dance card on Saturday with a 35-25 victory over the Dighton Lady Hornets in the Fowler sub-state title game.
Thursday, with tipoff set for 6:30 p.m. at Busch Gross Coliseum in Hays in the quarterfinals against No. 8-seed Colony-Crest (6-17), the Lady Bulldogs are no longer Cinderella, but a queen awaiting coronation.
That's what happens when you're the tournament's No. 1 seed with a glittering 21-2 record. A victory Thursday would put coach Roger Thurlow's veteran squad into Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal against the winner of the Hutchinson Central Christian-Victoria game.
"That experience of a year ago gave us a lot of confidence for this season," Thurlow said Monday. "I think they realized then that they are a good basketball team."
With the majority of his starters returning for this season, and also getting back an injured Taylor Bleumer (5-9 senior), who missed the final portion of her junior year with an ACL tear, expectations were high for the Lady 'Dogs.
"I think the big part about this group is that they've been focused and just don't look ahead," Thurlow said. "We've got a good group of seniors, along with some good underclassmen to give us a much deeper team than we've had."
The Lady Bulldogs steamrolled through much of their season, losing only to a talented Bucklin Lady Aces team, avenging that loss later in the year, and then repeated the same thing with Spearville, falling by three early and then winning by three later. Spearville qualified to compete in the Class 1A-Division I tournament with a win over Deerfield on Saturday.
"We've been a good defensive team all season (teams average just 27 points), that's our strength," Thurlow said. "Only twice have we given up 40 points, and one of those went to overtime (Spearville)."
Thurlow said the team thrives on its balanced scoring attack, with 5-10 sophomore forward Rebecca Wyatt leading the way with a 12.1 average. Bleumer is right behind at 11.3 points while averaging a team-high 8.1 rebounds. Wyatt follows closely with 7.0 boards per game.
But the Lady 'Dogs are more than just their two forwards. Junior point guard Tara Whipple, who averages 8.6 points, is the team's defensive sparkplug and offensive quarterback.
"Without her, we're not the same team on the floor," Thurlow said of Whipple, who also averages nearly five assists and three steals. "Games where we've struggled to score, she's taken over some of those, like Spearville and Bucklin. That's nice to have in a point guard."
His other starters include 5-7 senior guard Janae Droster (8.8 points) and 5-6 senior guard Christina Wyatt (3.4 points). Thurlow will typically only go to the bench with two reserves, 5-5 senior Maria Galaviz, who started in Bleumer's spot a year ago, and 5-4 junior Deisy Estrada.
"We don't go too far down the bench, but I like the mix that we have," Thurlow said. "We like to trap, press, run different defenses and force turnovers. That's been our game."
Thurlow said if he had his magic wand, he'd have his team improving on their field goal and free throw shooting percentages.
"We're not a great shooting team," he admitted. "On a night where we do shoot the ball well, we're pretty good. That's the team I want to see in Hays this week. Now that we've qualified, I hope the girls can loosen up, play more relaxed. They've managed the (high) expectation and are one of the most unselfish teams I've coached."
A year ago, in that opening quarterfinal game, the Lady Bulldogs surprised the No. 3 seed, Beloit-St. John's Tipton, 40-35. They then lost to Central Christian, 41-30, before falling in the consolation third-place game to Wilson, 48-33. Thurlow wants to avoid that first-round upset of being a higher seed this time around.
On the other side of the bracket, first round games include Wetmore (21-2) vs. Logan (15-8) at 3 p.m. and Norwich (21-2) against Wallace County (15-8) at 4:45 p.m.
See pairings, season results in Scoreboard, Page B2.