Girls State Basketball Recap: Spartans finish a successful season with their 6th straight state tournament

The Spartans were led by their seniors to a state quarterfinals appearance. (Left to Right): Haley Peterson, Ella Laessig, Zoie Armstrong, Olivia Kugler

The Boys and Girls State Basketball Tournaments took place the first two weeks of March in Lincoln, Nebraska and the Lincoln East Spartans were represented in both tournaments for the first time since 2016. To get to the tournament, the girls defeated Papillion La Vista South 63-44 to win the A-7 championship.
The Lincoln East girls basketball team entered the season with many unknowns. The Spartans returned only one starter from last year’s State Runners Up team but returned several players that played significant minutes. But beyond those few, the depth of the Spartans was going to be tested.
Right away, the first obstacle was losing out on several precious weeks where the team should’ve been practicing because the Lancaster County Health Department determined that it was unsafe to have indoor youth sports at that point in time. So while schools outside of Lancaster County were practicing and even starting games, the Spartans were able to do minimal training – nothing with a basketball, focusing on more conditioning-style activities like sprints. This continued for nearly two weeks, and then once indoor activities could resume with enhanced protocols, it was another two weeks before the Spartans played their first game against Grand Island on December 18th.
East started out 3-0 but the schedule was much more difficult later. The Spartans ended the regular season at 11-9 and earned a two seed in the A-7 District hosted by Lincoln High. The Links were upset in the first round by Papillion La Vista South and the Spartans beat Lincoln Northeast in a back and forth battle 46-34. That set up a showdown between Papio South and Lincoln East for a ticket to the state tournament. The Spartans started strong and didn’t look back on their way to a 63-44 win. It was the Spartans’ 6th straight state tournament appearance in a year where many people thought that there might be a drop off with the loss of so many seniors and key contributors from last year. That says a lot about the program and leadership that the girls basketball team has.
“We continue to have a lot of student-athletes who are willing to put in the work and do the things that we ask of them,” Spartan head coach Dennis Prichard said. “Even though we lost a lot of seniors we still had a number of girls with good experience who did a great job of stepping into the leadership roles.”
One of those senior leaders was Olivia Kugler. “I had some great senior leadership my freshman year that introduced me to what our program is really about and the expectations that are enforced when being a part of this team,” Kugler said. “I think the senior class this year has done an excellent job of continuing those things for future generations.”
The Spartans relied on their senior leaders Haley Peterson, Olivia Kugler, Zoie Armstrong, Haley Sprackling, and Ella Laessig for much of the season, especially because of the unique circumstances of this year. Those seniors looked for one last upset bid in the state tournament against Millard South, a team that plays very similarly to the Spartans and came in with a record of 23-1. East kept it close but the Patriots stayed an arms length away much of the second half en route to a 62-51 win. The Patriots were led by three sophomores: Cora Olson had 21 points, Mya Babbitt scored 19, and Khloe Lemon chipped in 16. The trio combined to score 56 of the Patriots 62 points. East was led by junior Matalynn Campbell who scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, good for a double double. Seniors Haley Peterson and Olivia Kugler chipped in 12 and 9 respectively and sophomore Lillie Shaw also scored 9. East finished the season at 13-10.
With the end of the season, it also meant the end of the careers for the 5 seniors. “They have all had a little different path in our program from being a first year varsity player to a 3-year starter,” Prichard said. “The common thread that stands out is their willingness to commit to the culture of the program and give us their best effort.”
That 3-year starter was Olivia Kugler, and she’s improved a lot since her freshman year, in more ways than just on the court. “I would say I have improved my leadership skills as well as becoming more confident when shooting and creating shots for my teammates or myself,” Kugler said. Kugler felt the need to step up as a senior this year and make things happen with the departure of last year’s talented team and she did just that.
As for the future of the program, that’s going to be a little bit more up in the air once again with the talented nucleus of seniors departing. “There will be a lot of opportunities for athletes to step up and play bigger roles, and hopefully we will have more opportunities in the off-season to develop skills than what we had last summer and fall,” Coach Prichard said. “I think we have a good group of student-athletes returning so it will be fun to see how much growth happens.”
Kugler agrees with her coach wholeheartedly, “All the girls involved in this program [will] continue to work in the off season and I think that is where some strengths of the girls that are returning will shine through,” Kugler said.
All in all, in a season filled with so much uncertainty, whether it be Covid-19 related or just the roles needing to be filled with the absence of key players from last year, the Lincoln East girls basketball team stepped up. They made their sixth straight state tournament appearance and although 5 seniors and their leadership will be missed, Olivia Kugler said it best about the program as a whole.
“Although we have many talented seniors leaving this program, I definitely think that the program will not lose its grit and toughness,” Kugler said. “The girls basketball program will continue to grow amazing student athletes who build a team from all skill levels and almost become your second family during the winter season. It’s truly a great program and I’m certain it will continue to be for a while.”