Talks of a state championship from the most inconceivable program began sometime last summer.
A group of West girls basketball players actually got together and made it their goal not only to reach the state tournament, but to win it.
They must not have known West has qualified for state once, in 1981, since girls basketball became a Kansas high school sport in 1974. They also must not have known West has had exactly one winning season, in 2002-03, since 1990 and the Pioneers had lost 502 of 566 games, for an 11.3 winning percentage, during that 27-year span.
“We were never concerned about the past,” said Brian Johnson, the first-year coach. “All the girls talked about this summer was turning this thing around. We’re not just worried about getting to state, we’re worried about winning a state championship.”
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Entering Thursday’s sub-state semifinal against Campus, the Pioneers (12-8) have secured their 10th winning season in program history and have five more wins than any other team in their four-team pod. They’re the favorites to advance.
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When the position was offered to Johnson last spring, he was weary of taking over a program that had struggled so mightily.
His first call was to long-time coaching friend Antwain Scales, who has turned the South girls from a middling program into a state power with four consecutive state titles.
“I told him to make sure he surrounds himself with people who share the same vision as his,” Scales said. “If he was going to try to coach and try to rebuild that team, then he needed to have people who were completely on board with him.”
Johnson, a West graduate, was encouraged by the conversation and accepted the job in May.
His first task? Changing the culture within the school.
“The main thing Antwain did at South was he got those girls to believe they could win and compete with anybody,” Johnson said. “That’s what I wanted to do at West. The biggest challenge was just finding a way to keep the girls positive and keep them motivated.”
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Transfers have played a large role in West’s success.
Brianna Johnson, who was a starter at Maize as a freshman and sophomore, chose not to play as a junior before transferring to West to join her father for her senior season. She is the top scorer in the City League with a 15.9-point average.
Destiny Pittman (South), Dymond McElrath (Heights), Mia Hays (Heights), Samantha Gould (Northwest), and Mikayla Shaw (Maize) all played at different schools last year, but have played key roles in West’s success after transferring. After Pittman (11.5) and McElrath (9.9) became eligible, West won nine games in a row with its only losses coming to state-ranked South (56-43) and Bishop Carroll (45-43).
“Winning is always fun, but winning at West is even better because the school was so down,” McElrath said. “A lot of people counted us out after we started 3-6, but this winning streak has opened a lot of people’s eyes. There’s a lot of people who doubt us still and that’s what makes us work even harder.”
Brianna Johnson can still remember the reactions she received when she told people she was going to West.
“They would just kind of look at me all weird and ask me why I was going to West,” she said. “But I’m happy and this season is going really well. It didn’t start out very good, but now it’s exciting and we all just want to get to state and win it. We have the team to do it.”
While this may be their first season playing on the same high school team, many of these players have played together on the summer circuit.
“We have really good chemistry on the court and it’s even better off the court,” McElrath said. “We’re like sisters because we’ve known each other for such a long time. Now and that me and (Destiny) are back, this is he team everybody was waiting on. We’re hoping all our hard work pays off.”
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It wasn’t until the recent winning streak that people around the school began to take notice, according to the girls.
There were such low expectations that it caught some off-guard, but now the team is winning and receiving more support.
“One day they read off our score over the intercom and there was a teacher who was like, ‘Whoa, the girls actually won?’ ” Brianna Johnson said. “I had to tell him, ‘Yeah, we won.’ Now I see him in the hallway and he tells us congrats all the time. We appreciate the support and it means a lot because we’re changing the program around.”
West principal Joel Hudson said he has noticed an increase in school support for the team.
“Everything we’re trying to do here at West is all about getting better at everything we do and these girls are a great example of that,” Hudson said. “Right now we’re really proud of our girls and we’re seeing more excitement on social media and there are more people coming to the games. It’s a great thing for our school and it’s making people proud to be a Pioneer.”
The players have heard comparisons to South, inevitable with the immediate turnaround and the relationship between Johnson and Scales, but they don’t agree with them.
“Antwain went and changed South and that’s really good, but I don’t want us to be another South,” McElrath said. “We don’t have South on the front of our jerseys. We have West on the front of our jerseys and that’s who we play for.”
As West tries to make it to the state tournament this week, the team wants to write its own story.
One that they have been envisioning since this summer.
“This is a new chapter and this is a new beginning for this program,” Brian Johnson said. “I really do believe that I have a team now that can go all the way. I don’t see anybody that can beat us now. We have the weapons to do it and if we keep playing like we know how, then I think this team can win a state championship.”