There's been plenty to smile about this season for the Tipton Lady Cardinals, including junior Abby Backes (standing) who surpassed 1,500 career points.

Chris Leuckel

Tipton girls enjoying historic
season, still hungry for more

Feb. 19, 2019

TIPTON, Mo. --- Last June, the Tipton girls started their summer basketball schedule with a one-point loss to Hartville.

Mmm, okay. So? This was a game in June attended only by parents and very close friends, after all.

Plus, there's certainly no shame in losing by one to Hartville, a perennial player on the Class 2 state stage.

What's the point? 

Here's the point:

Ever since, through 32 more games last summer and 26 high school games this winter, the Tipton girls are ... 

Drum roll, please.

57-1.

THAT'S the point.

The genesis of this Harlem Globetrotters-type roll actually started before June, it started about this time last year when the Lady Cardinals won five straight late in the season. They had upsets in the last two rounds of the district tournament, beating No. 2 seed Smithton in the semifinals and No. 1 seed Sacred Heart in the title game.

After a win in the sectionals, the season ended with a loss in the quarterfinals.

That's where 57-1 started.

"The girls came into this year with some pretty lofty goals, based on where we ended up last year," seventh-year Tipton head coach Jason Culpepper said. "And we returned our top seven girls as far as minutes played.

"Then over the summer, they really took that next step from being a good team to being a great team."

After the loss to Hartville, Tipton went to Pittsburg State and won a team camp that included squads from Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. The Lady Cardinals also had a swing through Arkansas to play some games and, obviously, went undefeated.

"We got to play all over against some good competition," Culpepper said, "against teams we don't normally see."

Any worry of basketball burnout? These girls have played 68 games in the last 54 weeks --- or roughly the equivalent of two college basketball seasons.

That's a lot of basketball, but the answer is a resounding no.

"These kids are just really, really hungry," Culpepper said. "They love playing basketball. Whenever we have two days off in a row, like a weekend or snow days, they're ready to get back in the gym.

"They can't wait."

And this team is tight, friends both on and off the court ... for the most part, anyway.

"You're always going to have kids in school who don't mesh together real well," Culpepper said. "But if you watch our practices or watch us in a game, you listen to the girls cheering for each other when they're not on the court, you couldn't tell they weren't all best friends."

Tipton's lone loss this season came Feb. 9 to Cole Camp, a team the Lady Cardinals (25-1, ranked No. 2 Class 2) handled 58-41 in December.

"Cole Camp (now 22-3) is a great team," Culpepper said. "They play really good man-to-man and they pressured us pretty good."

You should put a sizable asterisk next to this game, however.

"We were without Brooklynn," Culpepper continued. "That was a big void because she's such a big part of our game. But we never make excuses, we still have to go out and take care of business."

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BROOKLYNN WOULD BE BROOKLYNN PACE, a 5-10 senior who sat out that game out with an illness. Don't worry, she's fine now.

There are excuses for losing, then there are reasons. Well, how about these for reasons --- 24 points and nine rebounds, Pace's averages this season.

"She's our heart and soul," Culpepper said, "our leader on and off the court. We're going to go where she takes us; she sets the tone for our team."

Pace has scored nearly 1,800 points in her career, leaving her about 100 points shy of the school record. If the team makes a run to the Final Four, that record is certainly within reach.

"She can do it all," Culpepper said. "She can shoot it from 25 feet, she can drive it, she can rebound, and she makes the right basketball play --- she can dissect the defense before the play happens."

"Most players, especially on the girls side, just can't do that."

Tipton features a 1-2 punch like Mike Tyson in his prime, with the other being 5-6 junior Abby Backes.

Last year, Backes shot an astounding 50 percent on 3-pointers and she's dropped to around 40 percent this year. "That's still super high," Culpepper said, "for an athlete to be shooting that percentage."

"It's really tough to get a player who can shoot it like she can; I've never seen a girl at this level who can."

Backes has knocked down 76 3-pointers this season and 201 for her career. She's averaging 21 points this season --- she's at 20 for her career --- along with five rebounds, five assists and five steals.

Pace may break the school's career scoring record this season, but it probably won't last long --- Backes has already scored nearly 1,700 points.

"She works so much, she just puts in so many hours outside of practice, shooting, Culpepper said. "She's always prepared.

"She's there every game," 

Pace and Backes both scored 24 points in Monday's 69-30 rout of Sacred Heart in the opening round of the District 14 Tournament. Tuesday night's boys games were postponed, meaning the Lady Cardinals --- the No. 1 seed --- won't play again until 4:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 4 seed Fayette (12-11).

The district's No. 2 seed? Cole Camp.

Stay tuned.

Pace and Backes are surrounded by bunch of solid complementary players, including 5-8 junior Alexa Jurgensmeyer, who was averaging 15 points a game before suffering a broken hand against Bowling Green on Jan. 5.

She's returned after missing five weeks, but Culpepper has brought her along slowly. "We're easing her back into it," Culpepper said.

Kaylee Jones and Abby Utegrove, a pair of 5-8 juniors, "do a great job of anchoring the middle of the defense, rebounding and staying solid inside. They're undersized, but they do a good job of playing defense and playing without fouling."

Kiley Bailey, a 5-3 sophomore, is averaging seven points game and is third on the team with 50 made 3-pointers, trailing only Backes and Pace (63), while junior Tyanna Busch (5-7, jr.) and Gracie Wierman (5-9, soph.) are also solid contributors.

This team is good and dangerous --- and only has one senior on the roster. Does this team have any weaknesses?

"If we're healthy, we don't have a lot of them, we're pretty solid," Culpepper said. "We can score from multiple positions, and that makes us really tough to guard. Not many Class 2 teams can do that."

This special season has also been historic --- the Lady Cardinals rose to No. 1 in the Class 2 state poll for the first time in school history in early January.

"They were excited," Culpepper said, "but honestly, you never knew it based on the way they acted. They didn't carry it as a burden or anything like that. We win because of how hard we work, and everybody understands their role and does their job.

"But if you start thinking you're good, you're going to stop working as hard."

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WHAT CULPEPPER HAS DONE IN HIS SEVEN SEASONS at the helm is impressive, to say the least --- 159-46 with four 20-win seasons, one 30-win season, two district championships and two trips to the quarterfinals.

The four seasons before he arrived, the Lady Cardinals won a total of 27 games while losing 69.

Culpepper, 28, can't walk on water and he's not a miracle worker --- but he seems to be close.

"A large part of it is having the right kids," he said. "Also, I think in some sports and some areas, kids just aren't given the time, whether it's in the offseason, or kids just don't feel like you're committed.

"When I got here, the first speech I gave that team seven years ago, I felt like they got it, they got that I cared. If you go into something and you care about it --- and you work at it like you care about it and they see how much you work at it --- I think it's really easy for the kids to care about it, as well.

"It's all of us together, it's takes everybody. Them having a vested interest in it really helps out a lot."

Above, we talked about team weaknesses. This isn't necessarily a weakness, it's more of an unknown --- how the Lady Cardinals will react in a close game.

Their loss to Cole Camp was by 12 points and of their 25 other games, one game was close, a 53-51 win over Skyline.

In the other wins, two were by 10-19 points; five were by 20-29; seven were by 30-39, three by 40-49; five by 50-59; and two by 60 or more.

Wow.

"It's a little bit of a concern," Culpepper said, "but not too much, because this year is such a short sample size in the course of their careers. Our junior class is our main core; they've been together since they were freshmen and we started three, maybe four freshmen, sometimes with that group.

"So they've been in it, and they learned how to win last year when they were sophomores and they learned how to close out games the right way. And last summer we were in a close games, we just haven't really had that many this season."

Also above, we spoke of this being an historic season --- well, the Lady Cardinals have never been to the Final Four, either.

Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't. But Culpepper wants it to be on their terms, nobody else's.

"There are a lot of things you can't control in basketball," he said. "Sometimes shots go in, sometimes shots don't go in, and sometimes a girl on the other team might have a career night.

"We just want to make sure we execute and do our job the right way, we don't want to look back and think we could have done more. If someone beats us, we want it to be because they beat us, not because we beat ourselves."

If Tipton would happen to make it back to the quarterfinals --- and once again, be one win away from the program's first Final Four --- the opponent could be fourth-ranked Hartville (24-4).

Maybe this will be an endless summer.

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