STERLING – When the Sterling Black Bears journey to Claflin Jan. 11, it'll be their second chance to knock off a 2021 state champion. Central Plains has captured seven consecutive state basketball titles. Sterling downed the Oilers 59-46 last year.
Central Plains girls basketball coach Pat Stiles owns a 229-7 record with three losses to Sterling. The Black Bears defeated the Oilers 66-56 and 58-54 in 2012-2013.
Sterling's defending 2A state champions, No. 1 in the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association's rankings, rolled through December with a 6-0 record, capped by a 61-50 victory over reigning 3A champion Cheney in the final game before the holiday break.
"We've had different challenges," said Sterling coach Jill Rowland, whose team finished 25-1 last season with a victory over Pittsburg Colgan in the 2A title game. "They'll admit it to a little bit of – I don't want to say complacency – but we've worked to not get them to settle to the point of, 'Hey, we've kind of got this.'"
Experience is in large supply for Sterling, which returned most of its 2020-21 roster, including point guard Kali Briar, the 2A KBCA player of the year. Briar averaged 11.5 points, five rebounds and five assists last season. Seven seniors includes inside players Bennie Horsch, a second-team all-state selection who averaged 15.3 points last season and scored 16 in the championship, and Sadie Begley, who averaged 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds.
"For the most part, we had a lot returning from last year, a big core," Rowland said. "They've just played together for a very long time. We worked with them when they were in grade school and have been able to hang on to most of them."
Sterling's senior class also features Makenna Linden, Briar's backcourt mate who averaged 11.3 points a year ago and hounds opponents with speed and quickness, Kaitlyn Cornelius, Lacey Farney and Riley Richter. More depth comes from juniors Kate Rowland and Bella Brownlee, sophomore Faith Eckart and 6-foot-5 freshman Lily Gray, whose height has added a new dimension to an already imposing lineup.
"You can't coach some of the things she brings, like her presence with her arms up on defense," Rowland said of Gray. "She's got a long way to go, but she going to do good things. The pressure I put on her is to give us good defense and rebounds. We don't have to have her score a ton of points."
Sterling won its first five games by an average of 25 points, capturing its third consecutive Kingman Eagle Classic title. The game against Cheney on the Cardinals' home court provided the Black Bears with an early signature victory.
"The Cheney game was huge," said Rowland, whose team erased a first-half deficit and pulled away. "To be able to play and compete with a good team from a larger division was important. They were told by various people that 2A was soft and yeah, they had that in mind."
Sterling flips the calendar with a 72-9 mark over the last three-plus seasons. After falling to Garden Plain in the 2019 2A championship and the 2020 quarterfinals, the Black Bears turned the tables on the Owls in last season's state semifinals before defeating Colgan for their first title in program history.
Their pursuit of back-to-back titles resumes Tuesday at home against La Crosse.
"They read things really well and have played together so much," Rowland said. "We run a lot of different offensive sets and defenses. For a younger team to come in and have as much on their plate would be very difficult."