By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
Every once in a while, Pittsburg girls basketball coach Kim Peterson-O’Bray reminds her players that they were picked to finish fifth in the conference.
“Honestly, I don’t pay any attention to polls, standings or rankings,” Peterson-O’Bray said. “But I do tell the girls, because I think it can serve more as a motivation for them. During conditioning or a tough part in practice, I will throw out a comment to the girls in reference to us being picked fifth.”
The motivation has served the Dragons well as they have opened the season 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEK. Now, Pittsburg is faced with a key league game as its hosts the Labette County Grizzlies (4-2, 4-0 SEK) tonight at Pittsburg High School.
And there is no shortage of motivation. Not only would a win against Labette County put the Dragons in the driver’s seat of the SEK race, it also would be a bit of a milestone for Pittsburg’s coach. Despite finishing 17-5 in Peterson-O’Bray’s first season, Pittsburg failed to beat the Grizzlies in two tries. Labette County was the only SEK team the Dragons didn’t beat at least once last season.
“There’s some motivation there,” Peterson-O’Bray said. “And it will be our first home game since being back from the break.
“They are always good. They have a great coach and a great program. Even in what is thought to be their down years, they always manage to end up being around the top of the pack. They are very scrappy and very well coached.”
The Dragons are working to become a program like Labette that will be competitive every year. Pittsburg is on the right track as Peterson-O’Bray helped the team improve by 12 wins in her first season.
But many may have the thought Pittsburg would take a step back this season as indicated by the preseason poll prediction. After all, the Dragons did graduate a talented senior class, including 6-foot-2 all-stater Skyler Muff.
“We don’t have another Skyler Muff who is 6-2, but we do have several girls who are strong,” Peterson-O’Bray said. “We are just trying to play fundamental basketball.”
The team concept has worked early in the season with senior Lizzy Willis playing a key role for the Dragons. She is averaging in double figures in points and has been a force on the boards.
“Lizzy rebounds like crazy,” Peterson-O’Bray said. “She’s one of those players who just does it all for us. She’s a good communicator and leader.”
Senior Alaura Short is reaching a new level as a scorer. She has scored at least 20 points in three of the five games this season and registered a career-high 27 points in a win against Class 4A-foe Girard.
“This year, she is coming into her own,” Peterson-O’Bray said. “Last year she played more of a guard but has transitioned inside. She’s about 5-8, but she’s really strong and has a nice left hand. She can finish with her right or left. She’s more comfortable around the basket than she was last year as a guard. It has been a great fit for her and for our team.”
Pittsburg also will benefit from the return of senior Brianna Maxwell, who didn’t play before the holiday break because of a knee injury. In addition to the seniors, the Dragons have a strong mix of young players, including sophomore point guard Katy Short and four freshmen who suit up for the varsity.
The Pittsburg boys (4-2 overall, 1-2 SEK) will follow against a Labette County team (5-1, 3-1) that is tied for first in the league.