First-year Carey High School head girls’ basketball coach Merrilee Sears gave her Panthers one day to savor their thrilling 41-40 victory over the Dietrich Blue Devils last Wednesday at Gooding High School—a win that gave Carey its first-ever Northside Conference girls’ tournament title.
Then it was back to practice with their eyes firmly focused on playing until the final day and winning a trophy at the 2013 State 1A Division 2 tournament starting Thursday, Feb. 14 at Nampa High School.
Winners of nine straight games, Carey (15-6) secured the school’s second straight State 1A Division 2 tournament berth—and fifth in six years. The Panthers play Kendrick (14-10) in Thursday’s first round at 8 p.m. Kendrick beat Cascade 54-52 in a state play-in game Saturday at Grangeville.
Kendrick hasn’t played at state since it was a 16-team tournament in 2008, when the Tigers finished third. But Kendrick has a winning girls’ basketball tradition in always tough northern Idaho. The Tigers won the 16-team consolation title in both 2006 and 2003, and earned their only state championship back in 1997.
The winner of Carey-Kendrick plays the winner of Thursday’s 6:15 p.m. first-round game between Deary (12-6) and Rockland (13-10) in Friday’s 3 p.m. semi-final. Deary hasn’t been to state this century, and Rockland needed a 42-25 state play-in triumph over Richfield (16-9) on Saturday at American Falls to make it to state. Rockland last played at state in 2010, going two-and-out.
The other side of the eight-team bracket is tougher. Two-time defending state champ Dietrich (23-1) plays Kootenai (4-18) at 1:15 p.m. and eastern Idaho champion Mackay (14-6) goes against Boise-area winner Tri-Valley (16-3) at 3 p.m. Thursday. The state championship is Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at The Idaho Center, Nampa.
Last year at state, Dietrich (24-0) captured its second straight state crown and third overall 53-52 in overtime over Summit Academy. Carey (16-8) earned a third-place trophy 47-43 over Mackay (14-9). And Richfield was the consolation champion 40-36 over Tri-Valley.
The Northside Conference has produced all four champions—Dietrich in 2011-12 and Richfield in 2009-10—since the Idaho High School Activities Association moved from a 16-team 1A Division state tournament to separate eight-team 1A Division 2 and 1A Division 2 tournaments after 2008.
Carey coach Sears is completing her fourth season with the Panther basketball program, the first three as assistant coach and this year as the head coach. During her coaching tenure Carey teams has now been to state four times. The Panthers were 19-7 and made the championship game in 2010, finishing second to Richfield. They missed state in 2011, then were third last year.
This will be Carey’s eighth trip to the state tournament. The Panthers were the consolation champions in 1996, then captured third places in 2009 and 2012, and second in 2011.
When she walks out onto the Nampa High School court, Carey coach Sears will be returning to the site of her greatest triumph as a prep player.
Idaho’s A-2 “Player of the Year” in 2000, the do-everything 5-7 point guard led the American Falls Beavers to their first and only state championship that year. As a senior the American Falls native averaged 14 points per game leading the senior-laden Beavers.
American Falls had finished third at state the previous three seasons, and the Beavers had to win a play-in game to make the 2000 state meet. Once there, Merrilee Udy Sears carried American Falls on her back.
She scored 13 points in her team’s 50-45 first-round win over Weiser. She added 13 more including 10-for-10 at the free throw line in a 53-34 semi-final triumph over Preston. And Sears scored 19 points with 8 rebounds as American Falls (23-5) downed Sugar-Salem (22-4) by a 43-35 score in the final.
The Carey coach, now married to Brian Sears, played two seasons at Ricks College in Rexburg before ending her college basketball career at Idaho State University in Pocatello.
She led the Bengals to a NIT tournament appearance in 2004 and graduated from ISU with a Master’s degree in Educational Administration. She coached women’s basketball, working with guards, at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls before taking the job at Carey.