By NICK McQUEEN
Two seaons ago when the Victoria High School girls' basketball team qualified for the Class 1A Division II state tournament in Hays, team leaders Kristin Huser and Audra Nowak were sophomores.
It was Victoria's first state appearance in 20 years, and there were a lot of nerves and some pretty high hopes.
Heading to the Class 1A Division I state tournament this week in Emporia, Victoria has the same hopes of playing Saturday, but the nerves aren't there.
"We're feeling very good," said Huser, now a senior leader for the Knights. "We've been playing very good the last couple games. We've got some confidence now that me made it.
"We've been there once, so we know what it's like."
The Knights (14-9) are the No. 7 seed and will face No. 2 Blue-Rapids-Valley Heights (22-1) in Thursday's 3 p.m. first-round game at White Auditorium.
"They're excited," said third-year Victoria coach Anne Dinkel. "It feels different this time. The girls have said that. They just have a different feel about it.
"Being there once makes a difference."
The state appearance comes after a tumultuous season that started chock full of high expectations. The Knights were only a few points away from being 7-0 at one point, but ran into tough competition midseason around the Hoisington Winter Jam.
Plus Huser, the team's scoring leader the past three seasons and a Fort Hays State University signee, suffered a concussion after attempting to take a charge.
At that point, though, "we had some other girls really realize 'Hey, I can do this,' and they stepped up," Dinkel said. "We maybe didn't get wins on the scoreboard, but we had wins out on the court."
The Knights suffered three losses without Huser, inlcuding the game she was injured, but picked up a win against Macksville. In her first game back, the Knights lost for the second time to Class 3A Hoisington. The Knights' nine losses have come to defending 2A state champion Smith Center (by three), Class 3A TMP-Marian (by one), 2A state qualifier Claflin-Central Plains, St. John, Class 2A qualifier Ellis, and La Crosse.
"It was definitly up and down. We ran into some difficult teams there for a while with Central Plains, St. John, Hoisington," said Huser, who leads the Knights with 15.4 points and 3.5 steals per game. "The Hoisington tournament, there are always good teams there."
Nowak, one of five Knights to play in every game this season, scores 13.7 points and grabs 5.8 rebounds per night.
"We've learned to come together as a team, and realized we can all play our part and do what we need to do to win."
Since falling to perennial power St. John on Feb. 14, the Knights have not lost, including winning their sub-state title game last week against Macksville by 20 points.
"We kind of hit a slump for awhile, but we got over that when we needed to and started playing more and more as a team," Huser said.
The Knights start four seniors -- Huser, Nowak, Rylee Broyles (2.4 points) and Brooke Schmidt (4.6 points), plus junior Brooke Pfanenstiel (3.6). Top two off the bench are freshman Sara Schippers (5.9 points) and sophomore Kiley Schmidtberger (2.3 rebounds).
Victoria goes up against a one-loss Valley Heights team ranked No. 2 in the state, led by 5-foot-11 sophomore Jo Roepke, a player Huser and Nowak have played with in the summer.
"They've kind of given us some good insight on her," Dinkel said. "She's probably similar to two years ago when we faced Jamie Patrick."
Patrick, a potential All-American now at Hutchinson Community College, led Hutchinson-Central Christian past the Knights in the first round in Hays two seasons ago.
"She'll be good. We're definitely going to have to bring our 'A' game," Huser said.