Sunday, March 16, 2014

Kaylee Johnson, Natrona County look to avoid state tournament disappointment

Natrona County's Kaylee Johnson stands for a portrait on Tuesday at Natrona County High School in Casper. The Fillies are seeking their first state championship since 2000, and coach Doug Diehl said they're ready for the challenge. 

Jeff Kirschman,, March 12, 2014

The lowest point of Kaylee Johnson’s basketball career came two years ago, when the Natrona County girls basketball team – undefeated through 25 games – lost in the final game of the Class 4A Wyoming State High School Girls Basketball Championship.
It was the Fillies’ game to win, a loss that has haunted coach Doug Diehl as the ultimate of missed opportunities and a memory that was only intensified when the Fillies, again poised to win it all, fell in the semi finals of last years state tournament.
As this year’s edition of the tournament begins Thursday at Casper College, Natrona County (18-4, 10-0 4A West) once again finds itself in a position to win a state title. Johnson, a recipient of back to back Wyoming player of the year honors with a scholarship to play at Stanford next season, headlines a formidable senior class that is as prepared to win a title as well as any team Diehl has coached during his seven years coaching his team.
With the talent, the experience and, perhaps most of all, the team’s past failures, the pressure has never been greater for Natrona County to seize its first girls basketball championship since 2000.
“Sometimes I stress out more than I need to,” Johnson said. “I know it’s not just me, but everyone on the team is getting pressure from their parents and their teaches and their friends. But they’re outsiders. It’s great that they love watching us and supporting us, but they don’t necessarily understand what [the team is thinking] and what we’re doing on the court.”
The response was there in 2012, when the Fillies were upset by Laramie in the championship game. Johnson still remembers returning to school after the loss to a chorus of “What happened?” Or when she watched many of her teammates win a state volleyball championship from the stands, prompting a crowd of parents to remind her how she had yet to win one herself. She is well aware of her senior status – that these last three games present the final opportunity to win a ring of her own. 
Watching others achieve what she has not provides further incentive to focus toward attaining her goal.
"This is my last chance? Oh, it is?" Johnson says. "I don’t let it get to me too much. I don't want to be rude and say, 'Yeah, whatever.' Sometimes they know what they're talking about, sometimes they don't. 'Kaylee, shoot a 3 from half court!' 'No, Grandma, I'm not going to do that, but thanks.' But it’s easy to let them go. As long as we know what we’re doing and understand Coach Diehl, then we're fine."
The burden of not having won a state title may be greatest on Diehl, who has never come closer than the loss to Laramie. Players of Johnson's caliber are rare, especially in Wyoming, with Kaylee in the top 10 in the 4A West in scoring and rebounding averages. 
“This is a fantastic opportunity to win state, yes,” Diehl said. “The pressure of getting it done, it doesn’t help you achieve that goal. You ignore it the best you can, but there are high expectations. Everybody thinks it’s the easiest thing in the world that you get it done, and if there was some kind of recipe, everybody would win state."
Winning at this point would trigger relief at Natrona County as much as joy. The road won't be an easy one, as Cheyenne East, Gillette and Sheridan have had success this season as well. But what other teams won't be able to harness as fuel is the agony of defeat, which is may be the greatest motivator of all. 
"It's very upsetting when you let everybody down. When you're 25-0 and lose, that's the feeling: that you let everybody down," Diehl said. "You want those kids who have earned, in your mind, that right to be named the best team. And when it doesn't happen, it just hurts you. It hurts you deeply. As a coach, you feel responsible for providing that kind of affirmation or experience that says they're doing the right thing.
"I think it's just an innate thing, trying to take care of your kids."

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