It will be champion vs. champion.
McPherson High’s girls, the last-ever Class 4A Division I state champion in 2018, takes on three-time defending Class 5A champion St. Thomas Aquinas at 3:00 on Friday at Emporia in what could very well be the true Class 5A state title game since No. 2 Goddard and No. 3 Wichita Heights were shocked in the first round, leaving the bottom of the bracket to No. 7 Blue Valley Southwest and No. 6 Kansas City Schlagle.
The Bullpups returned to 5A this year after a 7-year stay at the 4A level, where they won both a 4A and 4A Division I state championship, which are added to the seven they won previously at 5A.
If the Bullpups remain in 5A indefinitely, Aquinas could be their new Miege. McPherson, Miege and Aquinas are arguably the three-best girls basketball programs in Kansas history.
MHS advanced on Wednesday with a tougher-than-it looks 57-41 victory over Topeka Seaman, which despite being a No. 8 seed had won eight games in a row.
Behind sophomore Camryn Turner, the Vikings stayed close for a half, but the Bullpups stepped on the gas in the third quarter and Seaman’s offense stalled out by scoring just 15 points in the final 16 minutes. MHS’ Grace Pyle and Emma Ruddle were tasked with stopping Turner, who had 13 points at the half, but just 7 in the second half.
Most notable was the inside play of reserve Cassie Cooks and Maggie Leaf, who combined for 21 points. It’s not often they are matched against players their own size or even shorter, but that won’t be the case on Friday.
Aquinas’ 6-3 super freshman Beatrice Cullington is going to be a handful. The Bullpups are going to have to find a way to keep her from planting herself on the block as she scored 18 points and pulled down 8 rebounds. Madison Skelton, a 5-8 sophomore guard, added 17 points.
The Saints probably are happy there’s a day between games. Their starting five averaged close to 30 minutes and they basically play six players. Their strength is their defense, as they get right up in your face and have tremendous quickness on the perimeter.
MHS, on the other hand, is deep, though that depth has been weakened by the loss of starting guard and defensive stopper Riley Hett and Emma Malm.
I’m certain MHS coach Chris Strathman and his staff have been working up a game plan for Aquinas for quite some time. I think they knew at the start of the year the Saints would be a team they could possibly meet either in the semifinals or finals. One thing I know, if the Bullpups don’t prevail it won’t be because they’re not fully prepared.
It was enjoyable to return to 79-year-old White Auditorium and see the changes made since the last time the Bullpups were there more than 30 years ago. The place is much brighter, but the noise still resonates as even though the building was probably a third full, it was as loud as any game this year.
I’m sure Bullpup Nation will turn out en masse on Friday and the atmosphere will be off the charts.