Winning dual state titles was supposed to be the ultimate goal. But that was eight months ago and there’s no time for reminiscing. The defending champs aren’t satisfied and these returning Bobcats aren’t looking back.
A thin layer of dust has settled on them now. For a time, they were hoisted in the air, paraded around town, presented at assemblies and displayed at the county fair. But their moment of glory is over and the 2006-07 boys and girls 4A state basketball championship trophies are locked up behind glass in the hallway outside the Burley High gymnasium, intermingled with decades’ worth of hardware, each with a similar story to tell. Only time will tell if the memories of the Bobcats’ historical run will fade like the metal finish of trophies from the 1940s and 50s. For some, in a way, they already have.
But that’s a good thing; there are lifetimes for reflection. But for now, the story isn’t finished. The sound of high tops squeaking on the hardwood just a few feet away attests to that.
Last February and March, the Burley boys and girls basketball teams did what only five other schools had done in Idaho’s history – sweep state hoops titles. The significance of their accomplishments went beyond Burley’s city limits.
“It means a lot to represent this area, and not just Burley, but the Great Basin Conference, central Idaho and eastern Idaho,” says boys coach Jack Bagley. “Any time we make it this far, it says a lot for the talent that is here in this area. You get outside the Boise area and there’s a lot of good basketball, and the Magic Valley is no exception.”
Despite all they accomplished, asking any Bobcat player or coach to talk about “last year” is like asking the Pope to swear.
“The only thing we want to focus on from last year is the experience,” Bagley says. “The kids have been there before and that might be an advantage in pressure situations. But this is a brand new year and we’re very seldom going to bring up what happened last year.”
The Bobcat boys posted a 26-1 record, its only loss coming by two points midseason. Otherwise, Burley was unstoppable as a Mini-Cassia wind. Of the boys’ 26 victories, 21 were by 10 points or more. They outscored opponents by an average of 14.7 points per contest. They were resilient, smart, disciplined and head-and-shoulders better than most opponents. Some nights were a bigger mismatch than the ants vs. the neighbor boy with a magnifying glass.
Meanwhile, the girls went 24-3, notching the school’s best-ever win total and winning the first girls state hoops title in Burley’s history. They were confident and classy. Not once during the regular season or district playoffs did they mention the word “state,” although the girls knew that’s where they wanted to be.
“That’s what I liked about the group last year – they didn’t talk about it, they just went out and did their job,” says girls coach Gordon Kerbs. “We didn’t have to talk about it; we knew what was on our mind.”
In some games, the Burley teams played basketball like Picasso painted, Mozart composed and Hemingway wrote. Other games they grinded out like a heavyweight boxer. Colton Moon and Jessica Brice were named 4A All-Idaho Players of the Year, but they’ll be the first to admit that it was a total team effort.
“It’s a luxury to have so many different individuals who have the ability to score,” Bagley says.
Both teams had more weapons than a James Bond movie. Four players averaged double-figure scoring for the boys, led by Moon’s 15.2 points per game. Ben Searle (13.4 ppg) was deadly as a sniper from outside. Post players Jordan Hosteen and Kyle Hepworth each averaged 10 points per contest. All the while playing defense stingier than the guy who takes his date to the dollar movie.
And all four players return this season. In fact, the Bobcats lost just one player, Casey Miller, from last year’s roster. Naturally, that makes them the favorite to repeat as state champs – but that’s been their plan all along. Since elementary school, this same group has stuck together through youth leagues and tournaments. Their parents helped mold them into champions from an early age by putting them in age divisions with older kids. They became known as “The Band of Brothers” and have been looking forward to their junior and senior years.
“I’ve been thinking about two; it was never one for me,” Moon says. “Looking back, [winning state] was a good experience, but ever since we were little, we always wanted two.”
Just minutes after Burley defeated Skyview 63-49 in the state title game, the Bobcats were thrilled, but talked as though they had only finished the appetizer and were hungry for more. “We’re not going to stop until we get another one,” Moon said at the time. “We want back-to-back.”
However, the girls were hit harder by graduation. They lost three talented seniors: Brice, McKel Baker and Jaymee Thurston. Those three players combined to score 37 of Burley’s 48 points in the state title game versus Hillcrest.
But Kerbs’ teams like to spread it around like butter on a dinner roll. Four players averaged between seven and 12 points last year. Oops – there’s that taboo phrase again: “last year.”
“Last year is over,” Kerbs says. “We had a good time last spring, but there wasn’t much talk about [the state championship] in summer ball. It’s time to go with a new group and try to be competitive and see what happens. Our experienced players know it’s time to get back to work.”
Work toward another state title began almost immediately for both teams. Over the summer, the boys played 35 games between five camps. They competed with some of the best high school talent in the country at The Main Event tournament in Las Vegas. As they were winning games, many people stopped and asked, “Where in the world is Burley, Idaho?” Of all the top-tier all-star teams they played, the Bobcats’ worse loss all summer was by just 10 points.
The girls made the rounds during the summer, too. Nicole Tolman, Kassi Kerbs and McKenzi Baker competed with top-level talent as members of the Southern Idaho Select team. Those three, along with returning starter Teresa Wayment, should have a big year. Tolman led Burley last season with 11.4 points and eight rebounds per game in the post.
“I think everybody is going to come at us with their best shot,” Tolman says. “We have to play good every single night because everybody is going to want to beat us.”
The Bobcats already caught a glimpse of that during summer leagues when every team they played treated it like a state title game. When lesser teams beat Burley, they acted like they had just won the Super Bowl. The girls were able to laugh it off, knowing that the outcome will be different when games really count.
“We might have a target on our back a little bit just because we did win it last year, but I feel less pressure this year than we did a year ago,” Coach Kerbs says. “My goal right now is just to be competitive in our league. Everybody is better than they were a year ago and it’s going to be a tough district.”
For both teams, it’s a new year, a new team and a new identity.
“Winning a state championship is something that not many high school kids get to experience,” McKenzi Baker says. “It was great, but it’s a whole other year and we’re just keeping our heads up hoping that we can make the state tournament again.”
“Right now our goal is just to get to the district tournament and then get to state,” says Brad Caresia, who will replace Miller in the starting lineup. “Our expectations as a team are pretty high.”
The community has high expectations for them, too – on and off the court. Whether it’s visiting children with cancer in the hospital, volunteering with special olympians, or making the honor roll, the teams have demonstrated the type of character that parents and coaches dream of.
“This is a great group of kids and I enjoy being around them,” Bagley says. “They never cause problems; I never have to worry about them. I’m going to enjoy this year. I’m just along for the ride.”
Burley fans are also enjoying the ride. They flocked to Boise for the boys and girls state tournaments, even out-numbering local Boise schools’ fan base. Burley High was presented the Sportsmanship Award at both tourneys, which is given to the school with the best fans, student body, pep band and cheerleaders. Some fans even made the trip to watch the boys play in Las Vegas this summer.
“It’s the greatest feeling you would ever want to experience in your life,” says Caresia. “The community support that followed us all year was just amazing. The student body is great. They’re louder than any crowd I’ve been around.”
The loudest boys basketball fans, in fact, are the girls basketball players. They filled the front row at every boys game and the boys did the same at every girls game. That’s why Southern Idaho Living felt it was appropriate to get both teams together for a photo shoot. Only problem was requesting the trophies be included.
“This is the last time we get the trophies out,” Kerbs grumbled as he reluctantly unlocked the case.
Yes, but you might want to keep that key handy. Soon there will be more pieces to add to the collection.
“That’s what I liked about the group last year – they didn’t talk about it, they just went out and did their job.”
“Winning state was a good experience, but ever since we were little, we always wanted two.”