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Examiner
  • Shawn Garrison: Wildcat seniors finish the right way

  • It took Mark Spigarelli all of 20 seconds to tear up.

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  • It took Mark Spigarelli all of 20 seconds to tear up.
    The Blue Springs girls basketball coach opened his press conference following Saturday’s 45-13 win over Cor Jesu Academy in the state third-place game by talking about his four seniors – Lizzy Wendell, Karyla Middlebrook, Tyra Bickham and Tara Sheehy.
    “They’re pretty special to me,” Spigarelli said through watery eyes. “You can probably see in my reaction how special they are to me.”
    Flanked next to him in the interview room at Mizzou Arena in Columbia were Wendell and Middlebrook – two all-state stars who have generated plenty of headlines in their four years at Blue Springs. Bickham and Sheehy – two players that while not as decorated as Wendell and Bickham, have embraced key leadership positions over the past two years – were seated in the back of the room.
    A coach getting emotional about his departing players isn’t exactly worthy of a news flash, but Spigarelli wanted it known that this wasn’t an ordinary group. The quartet garnered many accolades the last four years, winning more games (109) than any class in school history while advancing to four final fours and three state championship games.
    That’s not what separated this core, though. When Wendell, Middlebrook, Bickham and Sheehy started their careers, the program was already flush with success, having registered three consecutive 20-win seasons and placing second in the state the year before their freshman campaign.
    The next two years were just as successful. In the 2009-10 season, the Wildcats went 26-4 and placed second again before going 28-3 and adding a third straight runner-up finish in 2011.
    Despite that remarkable run, there aren’t too many people associated with the program that speak fondly of those seasons. Players played for themselves and not each other. They bickered. They didn’t respond to coaching. Spigarelli said he put up with “10 years worth of drama” in two seasons.
    The chemistry got so bad that at one point Spigarelli ordered any player coming in off a bench to hand off a stuffed animal to the player they were replacing to make sure there was some sort of communication going on.
    Contrast that to Saturday afternoon. With just more than two minutes left, Spigarelli took Wendell, Middlebrook, Bickham and Sheehy out of the game. The fans behind the Blue Springs bench started chanting, “Thank you, seniors!” Wendell and Bickham hugged. Then Bickham and Middlebrook embraced. Then Sheehy and Wendell. The chain of affection continued on down the line.
    “A lot of emotions came out at the end of the game,” Middlebrook said. “It just kind of hits you that it’s your last high school game.”
    Whatever bitterness engulfed the program four years ago dissipated as soon as those four were thrust into leadership roles. Along with Tyonna Snow, the lone senior on last year’s team, the Wildcats did everything they could to make their team a family.
    Page 2 of 2 - “It was just great playing with your best friends all four years,” Wendell said.
    Each contributed to that conversion in their own way.
    Sheehy, who developed into a steady guard over the past few seasons, regularly took a seat on the bench in favor of hot-shooting sophomore Aliyah Lee during Blue Springs’ most recent postseason run. That never dampened her positivity as she became one of the Wildcats’ most enthusiastic cheerleaders when she wasn’t on the court.
    Bickham, who has constantly drawn raves from her coaches for her consistency, made it her mission to take care of every member of the team, making sure no one’s confidence ever waned.
    Middlebrook, a dazzling point guard who could blow past defenders and get her teammates involved, was the quiet leader, letting her game speak for itself.
    Wendell, who earned a rep as a lights-out shooter her first two years before developing into an all-around force her last two, played the stern authoritarian by making sure every player was focused on the task at hand.
    “They all brought different leadership styles,” Spigarelli said. “... I think that made them such a great group of leaders as a whole.”
    Spigarelli spoke briefly Saturday about the task he’s now faced with in replacing the team’s cornerstones. He didn’t downplay the degree of difficulty the next year will bring.
    “We lost a great player last year,” Spigarelli said. “But we didn’t lose anything like we’re going to lose this year. I mean, these four are irreplaceable.”
    But thanks to Wendell, Middlebrook, Bickham and Sheehy, the players returning are in the enviable position of having witnessed, for two years, how team leaders are supposed to act.
    Shawn Garrison is a sports writer for The Examiner. Reach him at shawn.garrison@examiner.net or 816-350-6319. Follow him on Twitter: @GarrisonEJC
     
     
     
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