By CONOR NICHOLL
GOODLAND – A couple of months ago, entertainer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson delivered a TikTok that went viral with millions of views. Johnson’s lyrics come from a song called “Face Off” by Tech N9ne. Johnson raps: “It’s about drive, it’s about power, we stay hungry, we devour, put in the work, put in the hours and take what’s ours.”
Before every game, the Goodland girls’ basketball forms a huddle in the locker room, links arms and shouts the lyrics. It’s helped Goodland achieve a dominant season that included a December tournament title and one loss against a KSHSAA team. Still, the Cowgirls remained focused on school history, the program’s first state berth since 2006, per Kansas historian Carol Swenson.
On Saturday, veteran-laden Goodland, known for its length and athleticism, wore down Phillipsburg in a 40-33 home win in a Class 3A sub-state championship at the near sellout Max B. Jones Fieldhouse. In front of a raucous atmosphere, lone senior Emma Lehman and the Cowgirls took the customary on-court photos with teammates, followed by cheerleaders and student section.
Then, with the community watching, the players met at midcourt, came together in a huddle, bent at the waist, put their heads down, swayed back and forth, and chanted the Rock’s Lyrics.
“Why not do it for the last time on our home floor?,” Emma said with a big smile.
Next, the fans rushed in and engaged in a big celebration on the court. Coach Bill Biermann walked over to the bench, received the game ball and took in the scene. The loudspeakers blared “Stand Up For the Champions” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” among other songs.
The current Goodland girls have completely transformed the volleyball and basketball programs in the last several seasons. Goodland ended one of the longest droughts of any team that qualified for next week’s state tournaments. Goodland, ranked fourth in the preseason and sixth entering state, moved to 21-2.
“I talk to the girls all the time about how they are playing for Goodland,” Biermann said. “And how much Goodland loves them, and this community wraps their arms around them, and that’s because of how they play. Not so much that we win, but they just support them because of how they play the game. And it’s fun when you are in a community like Goodland, and they embrace your team. It’s really exciting.”
Phillipsburg, ranked eighth in 3A, finished 18-5 after back-to-back state tournament trips. The Panthers have junior point guard Taryn Sides, the state’s leading scorer and Kansas State commit. Sides tallied 26 points. Goodland navigated arguably 3A’s most difficult sub-state that had five teams with at least 12 wins and seven with at least eight. Phillipsburg played all season without Heather Schemper, a former first team all-league player, and shared the Mid-Continent League title.
“I am so proud of the girls,” coach Rachel Miller said. “I think we exceeded expectations by far, and I told them that.”
Both teams battled foul trouble and had big runs. Goodland ran off a 9-1 burst, though led 9-8 after the first quarter. Emma Lehman picked up her third foul with 2 minutes, 57 seconds left in the first half. Goodland led 21-16 at halftime.
Phillipsburg briefly led 27-26 when Sides made a 3-pointer with 2 minutes, 32 seconds left in the third, but Olivia Lehman came right back with a basket. Biermann believed a key step for Goodland this season is the ability to handle adversity.
“Even when their coach is maybe not handling it the best,” Biermann said. “But yeah, they have done a good job about understanding the game of basketball, the ups and downs.”
Goodland features its pair of 6-foot juniors with Talexa Weeter and Lindsey Cure, Emma Lehman and her junior sister, Olivia. Both Lehmans are 5-11. Plus, 5-5 sophomore Haley Biermann is the point guard, while sophomores Jaxi Mitchek and Haley Blochlinger are both 5-9 and key players. The Lehmans have played basketball together since second and third grade.
“They are just so athletic,” Miller said. “They are so long. They cover ground so quick. Just when we think we have an opportunity to get a shot off or get a pass somewhere, they close the gap so quick. It just puts a lot of pressure on your offense.”
Goodland led 33-31 entering the fourth. The Cowgirls delivered four steals in the final 5:19, and Olivia Lehman delivered a key basket for a 37-33 lead. Both Lehmans had nine points to lead Goodland, while Cure had eight, Mitchek seven. Haley Biermann hit a 3 late in first half, which Miller called “really big.” Cure had superb defense late on Sides.
“She was going to be the one to want to shoot that ball at the end,” Cure said. “And I know I really had a will to win at the end.”
Emma Lehman and the junior class has helped turn around volleyball and basketball. Next week, Goodland heads to Hutchinson for the 3A tournament. Hugoton again qualified after a final fourth berth in 2021. Frontenac, a back-to-back final four team, returns. Those three, along with Nickerson, Silver Lake and Southeast of Saline form the state favorites. Cherryvale and Santa Fe Trail round out the field.
Nickerson has junior Ava Jones, an Arizona State commit. Hugoton junior Mikyn Hamlin is headed to Wyoming basketball. Frontenac senior Heather Arnett, all-state in multiple sports, has committed to Pittsburg State softball. SES, like Goodland, is highly experienced and returned all five starters, including Karsyn Schlesener, a 1,000-point scorer.
“It’s amazing,” Emma Lehman said. “Just the fan base and doing this for our community, it’s been awesome, from a 4-18 year my freshman year to now. … I am so excited and so happy for not only my team, but my community.”
From ’16-19, Goodland won a combined 34 volleyball matches. Since then, the Cowgirls are 34-10 and 37-6 with a state final four and a state qualification.
“Leadership,” Emma said. “My freshman year, I didn’t have the greatest leaders, and I figured I wanted to change it, and I have some good juniors to help me, and some good sophomores, and this whole school has just helped us change this culture, and I am really excited to see where I go this next week and next year.”
In basketball, Biermann realized he had a talented group when the current juniors were eighth graders, and Emma Lehman was coming up as the lone senior. Biermann installed the 1-3-1 defense to fit the personnel. He said it took Goodland a couple of years to “really get after it” but the Cowgirls run it “very well now.”
Goodland never won more than 13 games in a season from ’07-08 through ’18-19. In ’19-20, Goodland, with no seniors, went 12-11. However, the Cowgirls upset Hugoton, 29-27, in sub-state and advanced to the sub-state championship game where it lost to a veteran Scott City team in overtime. Since then, Hugoton is 43-4. Goodland went 18-4 last year.
“That was kind of our bust through the door moment,” Biermann said of the Hugoton victory. “And then they all bought in. This group works extremely hard. I know everybody talks about ‘Man, they have got length, and athleticism. They can shoot.’ But it’s all about their hard work and commitment that they have that gets us there.”
It’s challenging for coaches to differentiate the Cowgirls because they are so deep. In ’21, Olivia Lehman was the only Goodland player named all-state volleyball (top-21) and she picked up honorable mention. Weeter was second team all-state basketball last winter, the only Cowgirl named in the top-26 for 3A.
This winter, Goodland owns wins against 6A Dodge City (19-3, state qualifier) and 5A Hays High (13-9). The Cowgirls lost in OT to 3A league rival Hugoton, its lone defeat versus a KSHSAA school. Hugoton is 20-2, while Phillipsburg had reached state the last two winters.
“An almost mental fatigue,” Biermann said of Goodland’s defense on opponents. “The constant pressure, ‘Where do I go, what do I do?’ And we just feel like over time, that plays out. We make minor adjustments. It’s really just about the four quarters of just staying after it.”
Weeter paced Goodland with 18 points per game and had averaged more than 20 points a contest in the first two sub-state games. She carried Goodland offensively many games. Sides primarily guarded Weeter, who finished with three points, a 3-pointer in the first half. Goodland fought foul trouble throughout the contest. Weeter collected three rebounds and a key fourth quarter steal, though the Cowgirls received big efforts from multiple players.
“Boy, you would have thought the odds would have been in our favor,” Miller said of holding down Weeter and winning. “It’s kind of pick your poison with them. Who are you going to shut down? Who are you going to make beat you?”
Goodland wasn’t going to give up the 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, and Cure guarded Sides with tremendous relentless effort, including out to 28-30 feet because of her range. Cure was on the top of the 1-3-1. Sides had to pass several times late in the game. At one point, she found a teammate for a wide-open layup but the shot missed. Goodland finished plus-7 on the glass, including nine rebounds from Cure.
“That’s what great about us, is that we know all of us can get in there and make points,” Cure said. “And I think that’s what saved the game.”
After the photos and the TikTok rendition, the coaches and team remained on the court for multiple minutes and continued to take pictures with the community. At one point, Biermann let out a celebratory yell.
“It’s amazing,” Cure said, standing in the celebration. “It’s the best feeling ever. This is what all the work has been put in for, is to get these feelings.”
At 8:02 p.m., Emma Lehman was the lone player left on a floor covered in celebratory gold party streamers. She talked with several young children near the Goodland bench. She took another picture.
She jogged over to a boy in the stands who held a sign “We love Emma.” Then, she went upstairs for her radio interview with veteran Goodland voice Ross Volkmer. Emma wore a look of jubilation on a historic night, soaking in what had happened – and what could come this week at Hutchinson.
“I am so proud of my girls,” Emma said.