March 14, 2019

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. --- In December, the Jefferson City Lady Jays won the State Farm Holiday Invitational.

In January, they won the Union Tournament. 

In February, and spilling into the first day of March, they won the district tournament.

Now, there's only one tournament left.

"We had goals coming into the season," Lady Jays coach Brad Conway said. "We wanted to win all the tournaments we were in, win districts, and make it the Final Four.

"We've met them all but one."

Two wins to go.

The state tournament concludes this weekend in Springfield, starting with a Class 5 semifinal battle between the top-ranked Lady Jays (28-1) and unranked Parkway Central (23-6) at noon Friday at the Hammons Center.

"The girls have done a really good job all year of taking it one game at a time," Conway said. "We never really looked past anybody and looked at any other team on our schedule."

It's not a surprise the Lady Jays are here, or that they've won every tournament and 28 of 29 games. After all, they were supposed to be good.

And they are.

"Going in, and with the experience we had coming back, our expectations were really high," Conway said. "Now, 28-1? I didn't know we would be there, but I thought we could have a really nice run."

And what a joyous run it's been. Girls just want to have fun? You bet.

But so do 52 year-old coaches.

"It's been one of the most enjoyable years I've had in my 29 years of coaching," Conway said. "They have different personalities and they're fun kids, and they have a good time on the court and off the court and in the locker room.

"They're like sisters, they have each other's back and they're always willing to help each other out, whether it's on the court or off the court."

Conway continued.

"This team," he said, "will be one that I'll remember for many, many years. If they're not the best, they're one of the top two or three teams I've ever coached. They're talented, they're disciplined and they're very, very coachable.

"It's a long season, but when you have a season like this, you never want it to end."

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CONWAY HAS DIRECTED THE LADY JAYS to four straight 20-win seasons, an overall mark of 95-17 in his four years, and three district championships.

The four years before he arrived, the program was 46-61 with zero district titles. To be fair, however, those teams lost three times in districts to the Cunningham/Porter machine at Rock Bridge, which was so good it was unfair for every other Class 5 team in the state.

But still ...

"I'm really happy with the way things have gone since I got here four years ago," said Conway, who recorded his 500th career win in December. "My goal was to put Jeff City back on the map, to be competitive, fight for district championships, and to play in the postseason.

"Just to get here (the Final Four) is a testament to the kids' buying into the system and the things we've been trying to teach them. Now, they're bringing everything to fruition."

Certainly, Conway has proven himself to be a good coach through the years, and it's easy to say he's done a great job with this program. But he's also had some help.

"It makes it a lot easier when you have talent," he said. "These kids love the game and they love to compete."

This year's senior class has been with Conway every step of the way.

"They came in as freshmen my first year," he said, "and I've got to see them grow, not just as players, but as individuals. They hold a special place in my heart for everything they've given to the program. Everything  I've asked them to do, they've done it to the best of their ability.

"I'm just glad they're getting to have this experience."

This senior class is special, indeed, and it starts with 5-6 point guard and four-year starter, Caitlin Anderson.

"She's our engine, she's our spark and she gets us going, on both ends of the floor," Conway said. "There have been games where she only scored eight or nine points, but she'd have seven or eight assists or have double-digit rebounds."

Anderson, who's signed with Indiana State, is averaging 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and four steals.

"She does a lot for us," Conway said. "She's had a great career and she's really going to be missed next year."

Then there's 6-3 Micah Linthacum, who's signed with Missouri. She's had a good high school career, but not great, all because of a series of injuries and mishaps.

This season, it was a broken bone in her hand that caused her to miss 10 games.

"Bless her heart, she's had to deal with adversity all four years," Conway said of Linthacum, who's averaging eight points and four rebounds. "But she's always been there, she's always at practice encouraging and trying to help her teammates, especially the younger ones.

"She's a happy-go-luck kid and she wants to win, and she's willing to do whatever it takes."

Gretta Haarman, a 5-10 guard, has been another steady presence in her career.

"Offensively, she maybe hasn't shot as well as she did earlier, but she's still a threat," Conway said. "She does all the little things, the dirty work, and she plays extremely hard."

The next great class is this year's sophomores, and includes 6-0 post Kara Daly (12 ppg., team-high eight rebounds), 5-6 shooting guard Hannah Nilges (10 ppg.), and Micah's sister, 6-2 Sarah Linthacum (eight ppg, seven rebounds).

"Those three mesh and get along really well with the seniors," Conway said. "Everybody's taken on their role and they're playing with a lot of pride.

"It's been kind of hard to defend us this year, because you can't just point at one or two people you have to stop. We're capable of having five or six kids put up double-digit numbers on any given night.

"They're No. 1 goal is to win, and they'll do whatever the team needs to accomplish that goal. They're good kids, they're good ball players, and they're good students on top of it. 

"They've just been a really fun group to coach."

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THE LADY JAYS ARE BACK IN THE FINAL FOUR for the first time since 2006, while the program is still seeking its first state title.

Adding a girls basketball state championship banner in Fleming Fieldhouse would certainly be a welcome sight.

"Since the beginning of the school year," Micah Linthacum said, "coach (Andre') Salmon has pointed up there and told us to envision having that up there."

"We're trying to be the first ones to do it," Anderson said.

"We've worked too hard for this to come up short," added Haarman.

Said Conway: "Not only for the school, but this would be for the community. We've talked about leaving a legacy ... and this is the last year it will be JC as we know it (before the new high school opens this fall)."

In this season of goals, there's only one box left to check. But win or lose this weekend, what a journey it's been.

"Like I've told the kids, you're making memories you'll never forget," Conway said. "Enjoy it. But we still do have a goal and we've got games to be played this weekend.

"I keep telling them, they'll be looking back 10, 15, 20 or 30 years down the road, and this is going to be a really special year in their lives."

With a win, the Lady Jays will meet either second-ranked North Kansas City (27-2) or unranked Republic (22-8) --- who play at 1:45 p.m. Friday --- for the state championship at 8:10 p.m. Saturday. With a loss, Jefferson City will play for third at 12:50 p.m.

"There are only four teams left," Conway said, "and this is for all the marbles. Like I told the girls, we're in the semifinals and we've got to let it all hang out. 

"Let's go out there and give it our best effort."

You can count on it.

The Jefferson City Lady Jays were all smiles after winning the district championship on March 1 in Troy.

Chris Leuckel

Loeffler's Link

One box left to check: Lady Jays
two wins away from state title