Sarah Strong shirts

Winnebago warms up in Sarah Strong t-shirts.

LINCOLN - The following are notes and quotes from the first three days at the state girls basketball tournament.

Playing for Kendall

Crofton players are wearing warmup shirts with the message #playforkendall. Kendall Thoene is a Crofton High School sophomore who is in an Omaha hospital dealing with a year-long, COVID-19-related illness.

Crofton junior guard Ella Wragge called Kendall the heart and soul of Crofton. "If he was able to be there, he was in the stands. He was screaming and yelling for us, cheering us on. He's always been there for us and it's hard to see him not be there in the stands. He's a big supporter and he loves all Crofton sports."

Wragge's teammate, senior Lacey Sprakel, said Kendall is the highlight of everybody's life. "You see him and he has a smile on his face and he puts a smile on yours. I think that's our biggest motivation right now is playing for Kendall," Sprakel said.

"His mom sends pictures and he's sitting on his couch, on his computer, has his shirt on and he's holding a thumbs-up and he's smiling the whole way through and we're really here for him and we pray in the locker room, and we're like 'Let's play for Kendall,' like, 'Let's do this for him, because he'd want to be here,' so we're trying to make this as memorable as we can."

Crofton coach Aaron Losing said he sent Kendall an email before the state tournament. "I just said to him how I'm so happy our girls are playing for him and how I've noticed him in the crowd as a great fan since he was a little guy and how, hopefully, we can bring him some enjoyment over these four days of the state tournament and hopefully he can be excited and positive and hopefully we can be a part of that," Losing said.

"He emailed me back and told me how thankful he was to know that we were all thinking about him. Our kids have a lot of motivation but a lot of motivation is for him and hoping he's going to come out of this all right and that we can kind of lift his spirits up."

Sarah Strong

The Winnebago girls also have a special cause. They all wear warmup t-shirts with the message "Sarah Strong."

The school's football coach, Adam James, said the team is paying tribute to Sarah Snake, the mother of boys basketball coach Jeff Berridge, who is battling cancer.

"It's been for the last about year and she has had some surgeries and been dealing with some of the cancer issues," James said. "So both girls and boys teams got these shirts and it was given to them by HCI Farms to support Sarah Snake in her battle with cancer."

Northeast Nebraska supremacy

Northeast Nebraska dominated Class C2 bracket in the state tournament. Crofton and Ponca are scheduled to square off Saturday night for the state title and on Friday, Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur defeated Bridgeport 47-40 to ensure the area would have the top three spots in the state for 2021.

Crofton coach Aaron Losing said the quality of the basketball in our corner of the state makes everybody better. "Looking at last week, you could have had seven out of eight teams in this C2 bracket from Northeast Nebraska. It happened that a couple of teams got matched up with each other and then it happened that one team got beat but there's about six or seven top-10 teams from Northeast Nebraska."

Hayes, a fixture

Bob Hayes spent more than the first 25 years of his coaching career as the head coach of the Ponca Indian boys team.

Quite a successful career, in fact.

Hayes took the Indians to seven appearances in Lincoln over the years and won state boys titles in 2007 and a runner-up finish in 2000 as well as a fourth-place showing 2008.

Hayes took a couple of years off from coaching to go watch grandchildren begin athletic careers, then Ponca came calling again.

Ponca's girls coach left going into the 2017 season and Hayes decided to return to the bench.

All he's done with the Ponca girls is bring them to state four times, including a fourth-place finish in 2017 and a runner-up finish last year after a four-point loss to Hastings St. Cecilia in last year's Class C2 finals.

He noted a lot of things are the same between the boys and girls, but there is one noticeable difference.

"We teach the same basketball and the same basic values as far as being a player for Ponca," Hayes said some time ago. "I just find myself needing to guard my emotions after a tough game - I have a couple of daughters and it just feels different."

Hayes and the Indian girls are set to take on Crofton in Saturday's Class C2 finals - the Indians second consecutive.

All-area opponents

One of the fun things about competing at the state tournament is having the opportunity to play against teams from other parts of the state.

But for Ponca, even though the Indians will play in their third state tournament game on Saturday, they will not have competed against any team from more than an hour's drive from Ponca.

The Indians first defeated Guardian Angels Central Catholic on Wednesday, 56-41, followed that with a semifinal victory over Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur, 55-37 and will square off with Crofton Saturday night for the state championship.

Crofton seniors motivated.

When Crofton faces Ponca for the Class C2 state championship on Saturday night the Crofton seniors will be trying to avoid joining the seniors from the classes of 2011 and 2020 as the only players since 2005, to finish their high school careers without being part of a state championship team.

Crofton won Class C1 state titles in 2005, '06 and '07 and Class C2 state championships in 2012, '13, '14, '15 and '16. The current crop of Warrior seniors were seventh graders the last time the a Crofton team earned the state championship trophy.

A sign of respect

Guardian Angels Central Catholic qualified for the state tournament but had to play without its best player, Brenna Rief, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during subdistricts.

The Bluejay senior was the team's only player to average in double figures in points and without her, GACC struggled to score during Wednesday's opening-round Class C2 game against Ponca, falling to the Indians 59-45

In an incredible display of sportsmanship, following pre-game introductions, each Ponca non-starter crossed over the half-court line to hand Reif a white rose.

Ponca coach Bob Hayes said he could not take credit for the gesture but that it was the idea of the team's seniors: Alyssa Crosgrove, Evelyn Krusemark, Hannah Wahls, Lauryn Gill and Tailyn Lawyer.

According to the web site FTD.com, white roses are often given as a sign of respect.

Kingsbury legacy

Ponca sophomore Ashlyn Kingsbury's older brothers, Logan and Carter, were stalwarts on the school's state championship boys teams of 2017 and '18. Saturday night, when she and her Indian teammates face Crofton for the C2 state championship, she'll try to win one or her own.

"I bet my older brothers I'd win three, so we have that bet and it's not stopping now," Ashlyn said.

No blood, no foul

Watching BRLD's Carrigan Tietz play in Friday's Class C2 consolation game reminded one of the recently-concluded state wrestling tournament.

When a wrestler gets a bloody nose, he often continues to compete for the remainder of the match with cotton in his nostrils.

Well, something similar happened on Friday. During a fight for a second-quarter rebound, Tietz was hit on the nose, which started to bleed profusely. Incidentally, no foul was called.

Trainers stopped the bleeding by putting gauze in her nose and a minute or two later, she returned to the game where she hit a turn-around jumper and sank two free throws in the final minute of the first half.

The senior went on to score a game-high 18 points in leading the Wolverines to a 47-40 victory and a third-place finish.

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