After a breakthrough season and fourth-place state finish a year ago, the Thunder Ridge girls spent more time in the offseason searching for areas of improvement than focusing on their success.
That approach has served the Longhorns well, with Thunder Ridge taking a 21-2 record into the Class 1A state tournament at Dodge City’s United Wireless Arena.
“They’ve made so many strides this year. I can see so much improvement all the way around in everybody,” Thunder Ridge coach Darren Grauerholz said. “(The experience) is a real big help. We got to play three games at state last year, getting to see that state-caliber basketball and then coming home and knowing what we need to fix.”
The Longhorns returned several players that played key roles off last year’s team, including seniors Libby Hardacre, Layne Pettijohn, Mariah Stauffer and juniors Brennan Kirchhoff and Jaden Boden.
“Kirchhoff, she spent the whole offseason just watching her turnovers on film,” Grauerholz said. “She wasn’t watching the stuff she did good at; she was watching her mistakes to see where she could fix it. She was very dedicated to make sure she was better because she’s our primary ball handler.”
Thunder Ridge, who will open the tournament against Coldwater-South Central at 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday, advanced with a 49-40 win over Otis-Bison in the sub-state final in WaKeeney.
Both of the Longhorns’ losses came early in the season to St. John’s/Tipton Catholic and Plainville, but Thunder Ridge is undefeated since Stauffer returned from a back injury.
“We got Stauffer back now and she adds so much, especially on the defensive end with her athleticism and her height,” Grauerholz said. “That was really big for us to get her back.”
Grauerholz credited the 6-foot-1 Hardacre for being the key to Longhorns’ zone defense.
“She’s been the center of this 2-3 zone defense that we’ve had,” Grauerholz said. “It’s got to be tough when you start to bring the ball in against her. Not only the fact that she’s 6-1, but so athletic and she moves very, very well for that size. It’s been a real blessing to have her.”
The first-round matchup against South Central (23-2) will be a rematch of last year’s third-place game in the 1A Division I tournament. South Central won that game, 63-29.
“We’re going to have to be able to handle that pressure,” Grauerholz said. “They got a real nice 1-2-2 trap defense. We can’t turn the ball over like we did last year with them. I think that’s where Brennan and the maturity of her and Layne, where they are handling the ball so much better, is going to be really beneficial for us.
“And once we get the opportunity with the ball, we got to make sure it gets in the hole. We’re going to have to rebound very well, too.”
Central Plains, winners of a state-record 108 straight games, is on the same side of the bracket as Thunder Ridge and South Central. The Oilers will open against South Gray at 6:30 on Wednesday.