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STATE CHAMPIONS: Kendrick girls, coach are going out on top

Feb. 24—Several years ago, Ron Ireland of Kendrick — who was then coaching both middle school and high school girls basketball — took note of a particularly distinguished class of athletes who had entered his program.

"These girls actually were my team managers when they were sixth graders, so I think it was about their seventh grade year," he said. "When we got done with our normal workouts with the varsity and stuff, they would stay and run extra.

"You just kind of get a sense of something special with a group like that; they want a little more, and that's just how they played ever since they got into high school."

It was Kendrick's class of 2024, which featured the likes of Hailey Taylor, Ruby Stewart, Taylor Boyer, Morgan Silflow, Harley Heimgartner and Natalie Kimbley. Ireland, who had been contemplating retirement after more than 30 years coaching Tiger basketball in one form or another, decided he would remain with the program through this group's graduation before bowing out.

They ultimately rewarded him with a storybook ending, clinching the Idaho Class 1A Division II state title last weekend in a nailbiting 55-53 overtime final against top-seeded Dietrich at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa.

Stewart was named tournament MVP after averaging 13 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.3 steals per game. Heimgartner made the all-tournament first team, and Kimbley rounded out the Kendrick class of '24 representation with the sixth-man award.

"I think they were something like 80-22 overall in their high school careers, and I think they went 16-0 in junior high," Ireland said.

Unlike many teams that are statistically dominated by one or two powerhouses, the Tigers had decidedly spread-out scoring, often rotating leaders game-by-game as their fast-break-heavy offense shared the ball. The starters' deep familiarity and ease with one another as teammates since middle school was key to that dynamic.

"Most balanced team I've ever had," Ireland said. "They had the chemistry, they had the trust in each other, just knowing they were going to be there, when they were going to cut. The beauty of our play is, it's kind of wide open — it's a read offense."

Kendrick boys sports programs have seen a spate of state titles in recent years, with the football team sweeping the last three 1A DII titles while the boys basketball team notched its own championship last year and remains in contention to defend that crown next week.

All the while, their counterparts on the girls side had been knocking at the door themselves, making top-three state tournament finishes in girls basketball each of the last four years and a state runner-up softball run last spring to boot.

"They're awesome athletes, that whole class — the girls and the boys," said Ireland, noting the many familial ties between the programs, including that boys standout Hunter Taylor is Hailey's twin brother. "We've watched them all; they've played basketball together."

The girls basketball title also came at a time when one might have seen a window of opportunity closing, with Kendrick set to move up to Class 2A (formerly known as 1A Division I) in the state's reshuffling of divisions next school year. In spite of the shift, however, Ireland believes the Tigers will be able to continue making waves in the postseason, pointing out among other things that Kendrick split two nonleague meetings with eventual state 1A DI finalist Lapwai this past season.

"We were beating the top dogs in that next division, so I don't think we're going to be that far out," he said, touting returning Tiger talent such as sophomore Hali Anderson, who earned her own all-tournament honorable mention at State. "I hope somebody comes in (as the new coach) with a lot of energy and wants to take them by the horns and go for it. The pieces are there. You've just got to put them together."

Although it was one of the three defeats (all to larger-division foes) his team suffered this past season, Ireland credits the Tigers' second encounter with Lapwai, which came on the Wildcats' raucous senior night, with helping them get used to the "big game" environment they would later experience at State. Also critical was an early season trip to Alaska for the Sitka Tournament, in which Kendrick would take the title. The Tigers, who traveled to Florida for a tournament two years ago, are unique among area small-school programs for the far-flung trips that regularly feature in their nonleague schedule.

Ireland plans to spend his retirement from coaching "focusing on the grandkids and work (at his drywall business)" while continuing to follow the Tigers from the sidelines.

Looking back on his career, he emphasized his appreciation for the support and buy-in from the Kendrick community that has gone hand-in-hand with the rising tide of its sports programs.

"I just want to thank all the community people, the backing," Ireland said. "That's what I love about Kendrick — like the fundraisers to go on those big trips. Everybody's so giving, it's incredible. I just love that community."