For the first few days following last year’s loss in the Missouri Class 5 state championship, Blue Springs High School point guard Karyla Middlebrook replayed the game in her head.
By SAM McDOWELL
The Kansas City Star
What went wrong? What could she have done differently?
The questions bugged her for a week, maybe two. But then she opted to look forward rather than back.
What will it take for the team to return to Columbia for a fifth straight year?
“I think that’s where being there before gives us a slight advantage,” Middlebrook said. “You want to get back. Before the school year ended (last year), I was already focused on putting in a lot of hard work to try to get back.”
Middlebrook has her wish. The Wildcats, 28-2, are in the Class 5 state tournament for the fifth consecutive season, though they are still searching for the first state championship in school history. They finished second each of the past four seasons.
They’re not alone in repeat qualifiers. Smithville returns to Mizzou Arena in Columbia for a third straight season in the Class 4 girls tournament, and the Liberty North boys team appears for a second straight season in Class 4. They, too, are searching for their schools’ first state championships.
The difference with Blue Springs, of course, is its longevity. Two Wildcats seniors — Lizzy Wendell and Tyra Bickham — will become just the second and third players in school history to play in the state semifinals every year of their high school careers when they tip off against Rock Bridge at 8:20 p.m. Friday.
The first, all-state selection Tyonna Snow, reached that mark last year. Her graduation — she now plays at Missouri State — along with an early season loss to Rock Bridge prompted many to dismiss Blue Springs’ chances at returning to Columbia yet again.
But the Wildcats will ride a 21-game winning streak into Mizzou Arena on Friday.
“I think most people didn’t think we would be in a Final Four again,” said Middlebrook, a senior who will play in the state tournament for the third time. “It was kind of fun playing (under the radar) for a change. It was something different. We liked it.”
That’s not typical with repeat qualifiers.
A trip to the state tournament usually leads to higher expectations — as was the case with Liberty North. Although Eagles coach Chris McCabe said the proposition of returning a second consecutive year was a topic the team never spoke about, it was an assumed goal.
And one trip certainly motivated the next.
“I told one our staff members on the bus on our way back last year that anything short of coming back is going to be a failure,” McCabe said. “I never said that to the guys, but I don’t think I had to. When you’re there, you want to be back every year.”
That’s a lesson Smithville learned as well. Two years ago, the Warriors reached the Class 4 state championship game for the first time in school history. A year later, despite losing four starters, they repeated the feat.
They are one game away — a win against Webb City at 8:30 p.m. Thursday night — from making it to the championship game three straight seasons.
The past experiences, Smithville coach Trevor Mosby said, led to higher expectations this season. They also helped keep the team from experiencing peaks and valleys of emotions. Instead, Smithville maintained a calm demeanor during its regular season.
Well, until its win Saturday in the quarterfinals. Senior Maddie Nelson made a game-winning layup at the buzzer to defeat Notre Dame de Sion and send Smithville to today’s semifinals. The basket prompted a pile on the floor of the Independence Events Center floor, with Mosby even joining the fray.
A couple of days later, though, Mosby said his team’s preparation has returned to a sense of normalcy.
“Having been the last two years, it hasn’t seemed like nearly as big of a deal to them,” Mosby said. “They’ve acted like they expected to do it all along. I think we had the advantage all season of knowing we could do it.”