Over the past decade there have been any number of outstanding girls basketball players, and girls teams in southwest Kansas, and more specifically The Garden City Telegram’s 12-county, 19-school readership area.
Two Miss Kansas Basketball winners. Numerous first-team all-state selections. College recruits.
And then you have the coaches, who helped develop those young players into promising collegiate players.
In selecting a Coach of the Decade, a period covering from the 2008-09 season to the just recently completed 2017-18 campaign, it became clear that there was a short list of candidates from which to select.
In the end, it became clear-cut, as former South Gray and then Hugoton coach Andy Gillen, with three state championships, two undefeated seasons, and several college-bound players, rose to the top of the list and is The Telegram’s Girls Coach of the Decade.
“It’s an amazing honor, and all the credit goes to my players and my assistant coaches,” Gillen said in a telephone interview earlier this week from his home in Caney, where he now coaches the boys basketball team. “I’ve been very fortunate to have stepped into successful programs with some incredibly talented players.”
In the 10-year period when choosing this group of players and identifying the top player and coach, Gillen coached Ulysses for one season before assuming the head job at South Gray, where he guided the Rebels to a 27-0 record and the 2010 Class 1A state championship. Four of those players eventually played collegiate basketball at some level.
During the decade, Gillen coached 2010-11 Player of the Year Mikayla Skidmore (1st team All-Decade), 2009 POY Kayla Thomas, both South Gray products. Also, he had 2017 POY Katy Heger of Hugoton, who also was named Miss Kansas Basketball her senior season. This year's Telegram POY Brooklynn Harper of Hugoton played three seasons for Gillen. Another pair of first team, all-area picks — Brigit Hesser of South Gray and Hugoton's Amy Scott — were tutored by Gillen.
From the 2011-12 season where he served as an assistant to his father, Lee, at Hugoton, and then became the head coach for five seasons, there was nothing but success for Gillen.
His Eagles’ first team in 2012-13 went 17-6 before the class of Katy Heger and Amy Scott and a cast of other talented players moved into the high school level. Those next four seasons produced two state championships — Class 4A-II in 2015 and Class 3A in 2017. His final group also went unbeaten with a 26-0 record and three of those players went on to the college level this year, with another two likely to be playing next year.
“My South Gray girls in 2010 and the Hugoton girls (2017) were almost identical teams,” said Gillen, indicating he much prefers a team that is guard-oriented. “Both teams really didn’t have much of a post presence. We could play full court pressure defense, shoot the ball, handle the ball, a lot of versatility.”
With his short stint in Ulysses, the two years in South Gray and the five years at Hugoton, his teams compiled a won-loss record of 159-33 during an eight-year stretch.
“I like to have a roster where we can pressure other teams,” Gillen said. “I like an up-tempo offense, and so with the group of players I had, we could play exactly the style I preferred.”
Memories are many for Gillen, but the two undefeated seasons certainly take their spot at the high end of his list.
“That South Gray group was expected to do that, and there was incredible pressure on the girls,” Gillen recalled of his 2010 Rebel team. “I just had to find a way not to mess things up. We had a 14-year-old (sophomore Hannah Thomas) step up to the free throw line down two (3.5 secs. remaining) and she made both free throws to send the game into overtime. That’s a special moment.”
He then recounted the 2015 Class 4A-II championship game in Hartman Arena, where his shorter, speedier Eagles ran a taller and favored Baldwin team off the floor, winning 67-54, for the school’s first state title.
“We were young, inexperienced but we really played a great game, and the girls responded to the scouting report,” Gillen said of his second state crown. “Each one is different, but in some ways the same, too.”
His final title came in his last game as the Eagles coach, and it was a beauty, a 59-37 romp over Cheney to claim the Class 3A title. Three championships, two different schools, three different classifications.
“I wouldn’t have bet one cent that we’d be up 22-2 on Cheney in the first quarter,” Gillen said. “It was about as good as I’ve had a team dominate in a championship game.”
In the end, Gillen said his success stems more from having talented players than anything else.
“Then you have to have them buy in to what you’re coaching philosophy is,” he said. “I just happened to be fortunate to have a lot of both.”