When Taylor Joplin was a freshman, Garden Plain needed her to stay alive.
Down three with only a few seconds on the clock in the Class 3A sub-state final, Joplin gathered a pass, shot a three and scored to send the game to overtime. But it still wasn’t enough.
Garden Plain lost that game after 57-52 in overtime to Cimarron. The Owls didn’t qualify for the state tournament.
“We have unfortunately ran into a really tough sub-state a bunch of years,” coach Kody Kasselman said. “When you talk about Kingman, us, Conway (Springs), Cheney and Independent, you’re not gonna win that tournament every year.”
That has been the theme for Garden Plain since 2001 until Saturday. The Owls beat Royal Valley 49-39 in the Class 3A championship game, capping a 23-1 season.
Garden Plain has a 82-12 record over the past four seasons since Kasselman became coach, but didn’t qualify for state in two of those years.
Joplin was one of the top players each team she has been on. She has been honorable-mention All-Class the past two years and has been named to the Central Plains League first team since she was a sophomore.
But, again, Garden Plain couldn’t break through.
So when the final buzzer rang at the Hutchinson Sports Arena, Joplin cried.
“It’s just so incredible,” she said. “There just no better way to end my high school career.”
Kasselman said the 2018 group was special because of how “connected” it was. Joplin said she has known her teammates since they were kindergarteners, and because of how small Garden Plain is, that brought them together throughout the years.
“These are the kinds of kids that hang out with each other outside of practice,” Joplin said. “They already spend so much time together, but they just love to be around one another.”
The group has been through extreme highs and lows. On Feb. 9, Garden Plain hosted a dangerous but manageable game against against Conway Springs. The Cardinals were 12-4 but were coming off a road loss to Independent. The Owls were undefeated.
Garden Plain scored two fewer points than Conway Spring in each half, and the streak was over. The Owls dropped from the top spot in the rankings that followed from the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
“I think that was good for us in a lot of ways because it kinda brought us back to earth a little bit,” Kasselman said. “We were starting to get too ahead of ourselves.”
Kasselman said there was a refined focus from his girls after the loss. They worked harder in the weight room and went against one another with more intensity at practice.
In the game that followed against Douglass, Garden Plain won by 41. Joplin scored 18 points. That momentum carried through the state tournament.
The top-seeded Owls handled Caney Valley by 27 in the first round. Joplin and some of the other starters played few minutes in the second half.
In the semifinals, Garden Plain got Haven, the team that took its spot atop the coaches rankings after the Owls’ only loss of the season. Garden Plain led by one at halftime, and the margin didn’t get much wider. The Owls won by four, and Joplin had a game-high 19 points.
And in the final, Garden Plain trailed by seven in the fourth quarter. After scoring four straight to open the quarter, Abby Gordon scored her only basket of the game, a three-pointer that tied the score at 33.
“That was such a huge play for her and for us,” Joplin said. “That gave us so much momentum to go on and win.”
Garden Plain didn’t trail again after Gordon’s three. The Owls overcame the history. Joplin finished her career with a game-high 21 points.
Joplin has been one of the best girls basketball players to come through Garden Plain, Kasselman said. Her accolades are hard to match and prove her value to the program. A state championship only set her and her teammates farther apart.
So as Monday came without a practice and with the knowledge that Joplin wouldn’t be back on the Garden Plain gym, it was hard to bear, Kasselman said.
“We are certainly gonna miss her,” Kasselman said.