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Outstanding Lady Spartan season Missing Final Goal – Presented by South Tulsa Smiles

By Ron Holt

Consistency and maturity are two attributes one could use in evaluating the Bixby Lady Spartans’ outstanding season which recently ended in a return appearance in the Class 6A Girls State Basketball Tournament.

Bixby, ranked near the top of Class 6A all season, turned in consistent season performances especially down the stretch. The Lady Spartans finished with a 24-4 overall record, captured the Frontier Valley Conference crown with a 13-1 mark, were Regional and Area Tournament champions and won 16 of their final 17 games.

It was a season that should make the Lady Spartans and coaches proud. But the desired goal – a state championship – evaded the Lady Spartans who lost in the state championship game for the second straight season.

Edmond North (28-1) used a buzzer beating field goal in overtime to edge the heartbroken Lady Spartans, 59-57, in the state title game at the University of Oklahoma’s Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. Bixby had its sights set on joining the 1957 BHS team in raising a state championship banner.

En route to the title game, Bixby defeated Edmond Memorial (49-29) at Carl Albert High’s gymnasium and used three dramatic free throws by Gentry Baldwin with 1.6 seconds left in edging Union, 35-34, in the semifinals in Norman.

Bixby lost to Edmond North twice this season. Short-handed Bixby lost to the Lady Huskies by 41 points in the Bixby Classic finals. The other losses were to Class 6A state semifinalist Union and Class 4A state champion Classen SAS.

“I don’t know if it ever goes away,” Lady Spartan head coach Tina Thomas said recently about the sting of a narrow setback in the state title game. “That was a gut punch loss and it kind of takes the wind out of your sails for a while.

“I felt like the girls laid it all on the line and gave me their very best effort. We just had one or two bad luck things that occurred, but we had one or two good luck things occur to get there. I’m so proud of how hard they played.”

With four starters – juniors Meredith Mayes, Gracy Wernli, Gentry Baldwin and Alyssa Nielsen – returning from last season, which ended in a 48-37 loss to unbeaten Norman in the state finals, optimism was elevated entering the season.

The four starters, who have started since they were freshmen, improved their individual skills and enhanced team chemistry this season.

“They continued to hone their skills and continued to work … they have the work ethic like no group I’ve ever coached,” Thomas said. “That’s how we approach practice every day … ‘let’s get better.’ We’re not good enough if we don’t work hard.

“I thought we did a good job of playing to our level and not dropping to the level of our opponent or trying to do too much against teams that were equal or maybe a little more talented.

“That’s the mark of maturity. That’s the third season that they’ve been in the fire. I just expect more maturity out of them going forward. They are hungry. We haven’t touched a ball since we came back to school. I’m kind of making them take a break right now … we all needed it,” she added.

The four returning starters present a variety of offensive options that are difficult for opponents to defend. Each finished the season averaging in double figures. Their improvement defensively, individually and as a group, reaped significant benefits this season.

Wernli, a 5-9 guard, led the balanced Lady Spartan offensive attack, averaging 13.8 points a game. She sank 61 3-pointers, shot 84.2 percent from the line, had 89 rebounds, 43 assists and 30 steals.

Mayes, a 6-3 center, finished with a double-double, averaging 12 points a game and 10.7 rebounds per outing, including 117 offensive rebounds. She led Bixby in rebounding while also recording 32 blocked shots and 44 steals.

Nelson, a 6-0 forward, averaged 10.5 points per game. She hit 55.3 percent from the field to lead the team while hitting 12-of-24 3-point goals. She also ended with 124 rebounds, 68 assists and 10 steals. Baldwin averaged 10.2 points per game while leading the team in assists with 118. She hit 82.5 percent from the line and recorded 41 steals.

While the four starters led the way, the Lady Spartans received valuable contributions from sophomore starter Brynn Daniel and reserve senior Haley Prince, juniors Kass Blankenship, Mady McClure and Sadie Beltran and freshmen Ava Casper and Sarah Beltran.

“We only lost one senior and we had several freshmen we played up this year that are coming along very nicely,” Thomas noted. “Brynn got more consistent. She just needs more playing time to give her more confidence. She’s coachable and a great athlete.

“We have a freshman post girl and about three eighth graders who can compete … it’s just how fast they can come long and how much progress they make this summer.

“We’re in a good situation. I think next year if everything goes well, we’ll be able to get people more playing time and create more depth. I think the one thing in the playoffs was the depth factor, we didn’t have the depth other people had.”

Despite the last second loss in the finals, coach Thomas and assistants Kristin Atkinson and Corbin Burchett were pleased with the team’s progress this season.

“It was a great year. We ended up 24-4 and the girls were named Academic State Champions,” Thomas noted. “We had a 3.954 grade point average as a group. That’s outstanding and every year that’s our No. 1 goal. Our quest is to do everything we do with excellence.

“Kids like these go on and do great things after basketball. They are just kids that excel, there is a quest for excellence in whatever they do.”

HONORED – Bixby had four girls honored on the Class 6A State All-Tournament team. Mayes (12.0 points a game) and Wernli (14.0 points a game) were named to the first team with Nielsen (11.7 ppg.) and Baldwin (7.0 ppg) selected to the second team.

Mayes and Wernli were also All-Frontier Valley Conference first team selections while Nielsen and Baldwin were third team honorees.

NOTABLES – Mayes, Baldwin and Daniel started all 28 games this season while Wernli and Nielsen started 27. … In the three years Mayes, Wernli, Baldwin and Nielsen have been starters, the Lady Spartans have a combined three-year record of 59-20, losing in the Area Tournament losers bracket finals when they were freshmen and falling in the state finals the past two seasons. … While dominating in several games, the Lady Spartans displayed poise in crunch time during other outings. Bixby defeated Union three times in four tries, downing the Lady Redhawks 49-47 in overtime in the Area Tournament finals and 35-34 in the state semifinals. BHS also won at 5A power Sapulpa (58-52) this season. … Bixby won the Tournament of Champions title at the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa this season and plans to compete in the TOC again next season. The Lady Spartans took second in the Bixby Classic and third in the Putnam City Invitational. Bixby is considering an invitation to play in an out-of-state tournament for its allotted third tourney next season.

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