• Wildcat seniors hope to bring home first state title

  • Lizzy Wendell, Karyla Middlebrook, Tyra Bickham and Tara Sheehy are a bit spoiled.

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  • Lizzy Wendell, Karyla Middlebrook, Tyra Bickham and Tara Sheehy are a bit spoiled.
    The four Blue Springs High School senior basketball players will make a familiar trip to the Class 5 final four this weekend, beginning with an 8:05 p.m. Friday semifinal game against Columbia Rock Bridge at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
    This will be the Wildcats’ big-class record fifth-straight final four appearance and the fourth for the quartet of Wildcats who played such an important role in the 49-37 state quarterfinal win over Kearney last weekend at the Independence Events Center.
    When coach Mark Spigarelli arrived five years ago at Blue Springs High School, he knew he had inherited a quality team.
    But he had no idea the talent would sustain five straight final four appearances.
    “I knew we had good senior talent that year and some good underclassmen,” said Spigarelli, whose Wildcats boast a 21-game winning streak and 28-2 overall record. “This group was the second cycle of kids after that first season. They all went to state as freshmen after my first year with Lizzy and Tyra playing some in the game.
    “I’ve been so fortunate to have a great staff, a great principal and activities director, a great staff and, of course, great players.”
    When the Wildcats lost Tyonna Snow (who is now starring at Missouri State) to graduation last year, the buzz surrounding the Wildcats was plain and simple: This is the year to beat the Wildcats.
    Because of that slight, the Wildcats played this season with a chip on their shoulder.
    “Part of it,” Spigarelli said when asked about what’s led to so much success, “came because we dropped a couple of games last year when Tyonna got hurt. Everyone thought we’d be vulnerable this year. But we didn’t feel that way. We had a summer to prepare and some great players came back. The girls had a chip on their shoulder because everyone was writing them off.”
    And now, they are going to Columbia to attempt another first for their team – a state championship.
    The Wildcats have four second-place trophies, a third and two fourths in the program's seven final four appearances, but no first-place awards.
    “Our goal this year is the same as our goal the past five years – well, four years that this senior class has been a part of the team,” said Wendell, who averages 18.8 points per game, “and that’s winning state. It’s great to have gone the past four seasons, but we want to go down and win state.”
    While that goal has never changed, their respective roles have changed dramatically.
    “My role has changed,” said Sheehy, who averages 2.4 points per game. “My freshman year my main role was the bench. I didn’t even play in the state championship game, even though I went and got to sit on the bench. We take pride in our bench, it’s been huge for us this season. This year I have more playing time, my role has changed, but whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll do it.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Spigarelli praised each of his senior standouts.
    “Tara has been outstanding,” Spigarelli said. “The energy level she brings to practice, to games, that’s been a big part of our success. Some of the younger kids were frustrated with their roles, so we showed them some pictures of the girls who are now seniors, back when they were freshman, and it showed them cheering on the bench. They have changed from role players to star players.”
    Bickham fits in that role as she averaged 5.9 points for the Wildcats.
    “I thought my freshman year that I should do as much as I could do in a reserve role because we might never make it back to state,” Bickham said, whose father Don Bickham coached the Blue Springs South boys from 2000 to 2004. “I was so excited when we beat Kearney, because we all wanted to get back to state as seniors. No one thought we’d be going back except us. We were pretty fired up all season because of that.”
    Spigarelli said, “Tyra is a special player. Lizzy and Karyla get a lot of attention, but one big reason we are going to state is because we’re a team, and Tyra is an important part of this team.”
    Middlebrook transferred to Blue Springs from Lee’s Summit her freshman year, and even though she worked out with the Wildcats, she could not play until her sophomore year.
    “I think that sitting out my freshman year was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” said Middlebrook, who averages 12 points. “After my freshman year, I hoped we would get back to state again. But you never know. Now, looking back on it, the last four years have been the most special years of my life.”
    Spigarelli chuckled when asked about Middlebrook sitting out her freshman year.
    “She was a starting caliber point guard when she was a freshman,” he said. “And she had to practice against (all-state guard) Meecie Price every day. We could have used her as a freshman, but she worked as hard as any player on the team, even though she knew she couldn’t play until her sophomore year.”
    Wendell and Middlebrook plan to play Division I basketball at Drake and Texas Tech, respectively, but both want to leave Blue Springs High School with a first-place medal.
    “I remember being really excited on the bench my freshman year,” said Wendell, who played in the championship game. “After we lost, I remember thinking how close we were to a state championship and how we might not get that opportunity again.
    “One of the best things about the past three years was how – when we were underclassmen – we worked hard for the seniors. We wanted them to get a championship. Now, the underclassmen on this team are working that hard for us.”
    Page 3 of 3 - Wendell’s development as a player is no surprise to her coach.
    “When she was younger, she could just camp out at the 3-point line and bomb away because no one knew who she was,” Spigarelli said. “Now, she’s worked hard to become a complete player.”
    What has impressed Spigarelli the past few weeks of postseason basketball is his team’s focus, including this group of seniors and their underclass teammates.
    “This group has been able to keep their level of focus,” Spigarelli said, “but this is a time they need to enjoy themselves. They should enjoy the fruits of their labor, let their classmates fuss over them.
    “I think the coaches were more nervous than they were, until we saw their eyes – you could just see that focus, that attention to detail. After that we were able to calm down.”
    Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC

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