By KEVIN THOMPSON
The Lady Bulldogs of Ingalls are headed back to the state Class 1A-Divison II tournament.
It's a trip to Gross Memorial Coloseum on the Fort Hays State University campus that has become familiar to Roger Thurlow's team.
Last year they finished third, defeating Wetmore after falling in the semifinals to Hutchinson Central Christian 51-50.
The year before, they placed fourth.
Now, at 22-0, the Bulldogs are the top-ranked team by virtue of being the only undefeated team left, and Thurlow said the team's goal is to keep it perfect.
Ingalls will face No. 8 seed LeRoy-So. Coffey County (10-13) at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
After two straight appearances, Ingalls wasn't sure if this year's team would be able to "three-peat." With just two seniors, a junior and three freshmen seeing the bulk of varsity action, the Lady Bulldogs have spent the season atop the 1A-II rankings.
On this trip will be a core of upperclassmen who have been to all three tournaments, as well as a solid group of freshman who played pivotal roles in getting them there this year.
Senior Tara Whipple (8.2 ppg) is what Thurlow calls his "floor general." She has started every game for Ingalls since she was in sixth grade.
Whipple, an all-state player last year, is all about winning, and cares little about personal stats, Thurlow said.
"She's just a winner. That's why our wins have gone up every year. She's started every game in high school, and I'd be surprised if she's missed more than two practices," he said.
Deisy Estrada is the team's other senior, a 3-point threat as well as a solid defender.
Rebecca Wyatt will be making her third state appearance. The junior has averaged 13.3 and 10.4 a game.
"She dominates the boards. She's dominating on defense," Thurlow said of his 5-10 post.
Hope Beach, one of three key freshmen, has been what Thurlow calls his "sixth starter."
She's undersized as a freshman playing against bigger girls. In the sub-state final, he said she was the most clutch player, scoring 13 and hitting key free throws down the stretch.
Fellow freshmen Kaisha Batman does a good job outside, and Bulma Galaviz gives Wyatt help below.
"I wasn't expecting to go to state this year with all the freshmen coming in," Whipple said, "but it's been a great ride with how hard they've worked and how big of a role they stepped into."
Thurlow said his team somehow finds a way to win, whether it's by limiting their opponents' strengths or playing up their own. Often, the two don't match up, but his girls have always found a way to make things work.
"That's just effort, girls who buy in and know that if they're going to win, they have to limit opportunities for the other team," he said. "We're not the biggest team, but we're fast and we have a lot of heart, from the seniors down to the freshmen."
All the girls went to state in volleyball this past fall, so they all have experience in the Gross Memorial Coliseum. They are led by the two seniors and Wyatt, who have been there for basketball twice already.
They don't expect to play a perfect game, but they do plan to do what's got them this far.
"We don't shoot the lights out. It's never pretty with this group. But in the box score when it says we win, that's always pretty nice," Thurlow said.
Ingalls has been inspired lately by a spirited group of students calling themselves the Dog Pound. Decked out in odd costumes and covered in face and body paint, the group fills the gym with lively, synchronized chants and cheers.
"The crowd is so much fun. I hope this becomes a tradition, this Dog Pound," Thurlow said. "I know they're having a ball. Our girls are playing even better than before."
Thurlow said his team had hit "kind of lull" after Christmas, winning but with little fanfare.
"But when this crowd started coming and getting behind them, they've just taken it to another level. I'm sure we're going to have the same support at state. It's just so much fun," he said.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Kim Batman (the volleyball coach and mother of Kaisha), who got the group organized and taught them some cheers.
"It's just awesome that the school's coming together like this," Thurlow said. "The boys have gotten behind us. At some schools, there seems to be some jealousy, but they want these girls to go and do well and the girls appreciate it. They get on the intercom before school and thank the Dog Pound. It's fun. It's a cool vibe. I hope it continues."