Thunder Ridge making rare state appearance
Published on -3/5/2013, 10:11 AM
By KLINT SPILLER
Even before Kensington-West Smith County and Agra-Eastern Heights consolidated to form Thunder Ridge High School, there wasn't much of a tradition of excellence in girls' basketball.
There was only one state appearance between Thunder Ridge, West Smith County and Eastern Heights, and that came in 1991 with West Smith County. The Goldbugs took third place in Class 1A. It took 22 years, but the girls' basketball team from Kensington made it back to state. Thunder Ridge (18-4) won its Class 1A Division I sub-state tournament and will face Bucklin (17-5) in the first round of state at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday at White Auditorium in Emporia.
For point guard Brittany Kirchhoff, it was a pretty special way to cap her senior season.
"It's really exciting," Kirchhoff said. "It hasn't really set in yet that it's actually happening."
The Longhorns have momentum on their side.
They started the season 6-4, but since then, they have won 11 in a row -- 12 counting the first-round sub-state bye.
"After we kept getting on that roll, it just felt like everything was falling together, especially after these last two games," Kirchhoff said. "Nothing has really gone wrong. We've been playing the whole 32 minutes as a team and working together really well on offense and defense, both."
In those wins, the Longhorns weren't even challenged, winning all by double figures and many by 20 or more points.
"Right now we are playing the best ball I've ever seen us play," said Darren Grauerholz, eighth-year Thunder Ridge head coach.
Thunder Ridge only has played in four games decided by single digits, and three of those came in the first three games of the season. Since then, every win or loss has been by double figures, typically in the Longhorns' favor.
"It's been nice, but I'd like to have a little bit of experience coaching in a close ball game," Grauerholz said.
Grauerholz credited his girls for adapting midway through the season when the Longhorns moved a freshman, Kirsten Burger, into the starting lineup.
Burger, 5-foot-11, added some height and athleticism. Grauerholz said it made Thunder Ridge a better rebounding team and provided some different threats offensively.
"She is a hybrid player," Grauerholz said. "She loves playing inside at the post, but with her shooting ability, she can play anywhere on the floor."
Burger averages 8.8 points per game, second best on the team, and 7.2 rebounds per game, a team high.
"We put a lot of pressure on her as a freshman," he added. "I wouldn't have asked anybody to do it if they weren't capable, but I knew she was."
The move allowed senior Elly Miller and freshman Shaylin Webb to catalyze the team off the bench.
As the point guard, Kirchhoff has led Thunder Ridge on the court and in the stat book. She averages 13.7 points, 2.1 assists and 2.8 steals -- all team highs.
Grauerholz said Kirchhoff has improved greatly as a ball handler from last season to this season -- another reason for their improvement.
"Brittany can get impatient at times, but I keep saying she is our fuel for our fire," Grauerholz said. "We go as she goes."
The rest of Thunder Ridge's starting lineup is made up of senior guard Amber Schmid, 6.3 points per game; 6-foot-1 senior forward Jackie Reneberg, 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds; and 6-foot forward Caitlin Boden, 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Kirchhoff said it's the team's goal to make it to Saturday, which means the Longhorns have to get past the Bucklin Red Aces.
Bucklin's top player is junior Morgan Hood. The 5-foot-9 wing leads the team with 18.2 points and 7.8 rebounds. She also averages 2.2 assists and 3.2 steals.
The Red Aces also have a talented point guard in sophomore Janae Price, who averages a team-high 3.8 assists and 3.4 steals as well as 11.3 points per game.
"Right now, we watched film on the team we play, Bucklin," Kirchhoff said. "It looks pretty good. I think we have a good chance of making it further than just the first round. I'm hoping we can pull through and play like we know how."