Wamego wins first-ever state title

By Grant Guggisberg

SALINA — In the end, it was fitting that Rikki Alderson and Lakyn Rowden were the last two Red Raiders to score in Saturday’s state championship win.

More often than not, the two senior starters are overshadowed by Kaylee and Lanie Page and their dynamic ability to score and impact games. But as Wamego brought home its first title in school history with its 60-53 win over McPherson in the Class 4A title game, it was clear that without those seniors, it might not have ended so well.

“We’ve talked about that all year,” Wamego coach Jim Page said. “We knew there was going to come a time when we needed the others to step up. We played a good portion of the game without Kaylee and Lanie both on the floor.”

With Kaylee battling foul trouble and a brief injury to Lanie in the second half, it truly was a team effort for the Red Raiders, who maintained the five-point Wamego (25-1) lead in the third quarter before McPherson (22-4) evened things up early in the fourth quarter.

“The other kids, the seniors, the younger kids, they all stepped up,” Jim Page said. “That was the biggest thing for us, and that’s the way it’s been all year. Katie Baker came in and played unbelievable defense today. I’m so happy for the kids. They’re really good kids.”

McPherson took its only lead of the second half on a jumper by Janae Barnes with 5:34 to play to cap an 8-0 run. That’s when Lanie, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, took over. The 14-year-old sophomore knocked down four straight free throws to give Wamego a 48-45 lead.

McPherson’s realistic chances of winning were dashed just minutes later when Oklahoma State commitment Katelyn Loecker fouled out at the 3:25 mark. At the time, she had 25 of her team’s 47 points and was easily the Bullpups’ best threat offensively. After Kaylee started accumulating fouls trying to stop the 6-foot post, it was senior Baker’s turn guard Loecker. Baker face-guarded her the rest of the way, following her everywhere she went and denying her the ball as often as she could.

“She’s always been a defensive specialist for us, and she really did a good job on (Loecker),” Kaylee said. “You can’t always completely shut a player down, but she did a great job of containing her.”

McPherson did manage to tie the game at 50 with less than 3 minutes to play, but struggled offensively with Loecker out of the game.

Wamego led 54-53 with 1:08 to play after McPherson’s Hailey Ruder made a pair of free throws, but two free throws by Allison Seufert and a bucket by Alderson gave Wamego a five-point lead with 31 seconds to play. After a missed 3, Rowden knocked down a pair of free throws to make up the final margin. Jim said he’s proud of the way his team has grown this season.

“Those kids have grown up a lot this year,” he said. “(Seufert) and (Madeline Vontz), they went from playing mostly JV to being a big factor on varsity. I know what Rikki and Lakyn can do. I knew those kids could do it, and we’ve been talking about it all year.”

Kaylee led the Red Raiders with 22 points, but missed much of the second half with foul trouble. In her absence, Lanie had her best game of the tournament, knowing she had to make up the difference.

“The thing about Lanie is, she’s only 14 years old,” Jim Page said. “She did skip eighth grade, which was academically and socially driven. But for her to be able to step up and do what she did on this type of stage, it’s huge. She’s always played three years up. That’s just what she knows.”

Lanie said she made a conscious decision to be more aggressive with her sister on the bench.

“It’s difficult to play without her, because I always play with her,” Lanie said. “I knew when she got in foul trouble that I needed to step up and play as hard as I could for her — just being more aggressive and try to take it to the hoop and get fouled.”

Once it was certain Wamego would win late in the fourth quarter, the emotions and celebrations came through in earnest. After receiving the trophy, the team spent the next 30 minutes posing for pictures and celebrating with the large contingent of Red Raiders fans who made the drive.

Rowden struggled to put into words what the championship means to her.

“It’s more than amazing — I’m speechless,” Rowden said. “It’s unbelievable. We never expected this freshman year — ever. We’ve come so far, and somebody pointed out to me, there are 63 other teams in 4A that went out with a loss. We’re the only ones to end with a win. It’s amazing.”

Kaylee was equally as excited.

“It’s indescribable,” Kaylee said. “Especially because Rikki (Alderson) is my best friend, giving all of our seniors this, it’s amazing. Our crowd was amazing, we had so many fans here. It’s been awesome.”

Early on, it looked as if each team’s star players would be the only scorers in the game. Loecker scored McPherson’s first eight points, while no Red Raiders other than Kaylee and Lanie scored in the first half.

After leading most of the first quarter, McPherson stormed back, using a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Hannah Willems to take an 11-10 lead. The Bullpups led by as many as six in the second quarter before Kaylee and Lanie rattled off an 11-0 run between them to lead 23-18. Wamego led 25-20 at halftime.

In the third, with Kaylee and Lanie both out of the game, Rowden said the seniors talked in a timeout about making sure they kept the lead.

“As seniors,” Rowden said, “when we went out onto the court right then, we got together and were like ‘it’s our time to step up, we’re apart of this team and we’ve been here for four years - we’ve got to make our stand.’”

The Red Raiders did, and their two talented 6-foot-2 players did the rest. While frustrated with not being on the court when her team needed her, Kaylee said she was proud of the way they played without her.

“All my teammates stepped up,” Kaylee said. “My sister played well, Alli, Lakyn, Rikki, all of them played really well. So it’s great for them, especially as seniors. It’s a great way to go out and I’m so proud of them.”

Jim Page was quick to point out that Wamego’s title wasn’t just a one-season deal. The same group of girls have been putting in the time over the last decade to get to this point.

“This didn’t just happen this season,” he said. “Lanie went to her first camp when she was 4, so it’s been a process. It’s a 10-year process, kids are out in the gym on Wednesday’s and Sunday’s and other times when other kids are out doing whatever else, they’re in the gym. It was awarded this season, but it all happened the last eight or 10 years.”

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