Tonganoxie Most area girls basketball teams would be content with any of the following - a talented 6-footer, a point guard with state-tournament experience, a leading scorer who is guaranteed to stick around for one more season.
Tonganxoie High has it all - in one tidy package.
As the lone returning starter off last year's team that finished fourth at the Class 4A state tournament, Ali Pistora has been asked to shoulder quite a burden for the young Chieftains this winter. The junior point guard has lived up to the task, using her lanky 6-foot frame, an abundance of athleticism and a sharp basketball IQ to guide Tonganoxie to a 9-0 start and a No. 3 ranking in the Kansas Basketball Coaches Assn. Class 4A poll.
She also has stepped into the void created by those four departing seniors and embraced the role of vocal team leader, perhaps her most important contribution to coach Randy Kraft's inexperienced yet talented squad.
You lost four senior starters off last year's state-tournament team. Going into this year, were you worried about it maybe being a rebuilding year?
It is difficult to lose four seniors. It is a rebuilding year. I think a lot of girls stepped up from JV to varsity. We only had four girls, including me, come back from the varsity team, so they are the leaders now. ... But the bottom half of our varsity is still even with us, so no matter what, we can fit each other in and work around. We're getting used to each other.
Given that, to start out 9-0 - are you surprised that you have been able to pick up where you left off last year record-wise?
Maybe a little bit. We started out with really close games. We had hard competition. But we feel that we need to get back to the level that we were at (that we left off at state) and start improving from then on.
Do you find already this year that teams are stepping up their intensity when they play you? Do you feel like you're getting everybody's best shot when you're out there?
Of course. We were league champs last year, and I know we have a target on our backs. They want revenge (against) us. They don't like losing a lot. (Basehor-Linwood) is a big rival because they're right next to us. And also people from regionals that are in our league, they want to know that they're better than us because we went to state. They want to prove to us that they're a better team.
You had the chance last year as a sophomore to learn from a very strong senior class. Were you able to take a lot of lessons from what they had to offer?
Yeah, a lot of them had to offer a lot of leadership skills that maybe younger kids can't understand because they're not as disciplined and don't accept what the coach is asking. They were really good leaders and not maybe the best players, but they knew how to win. They knew how to pass the ball, get each other open and play as a team.
How much has that helped you now this year being the one starter that's back? Do you see yourself as kind of taking over for them and now being the one that has to then lead everybody else?
I do, because I am returning and I know what it's like to lose and all that stuff. But our seniors do well at that job also. I just help out and hopefully I can make other people better.
You're not a senior. You've still got one more year of seasoning to go. Do you ever find it kind of a weird situation that here you are as a junior yet you're a team leader?
No, it's just, you have to. Somebody has to step up and motivate the team. But everybody does that for each other. We give high-fives in practice all the time, say how good you are, and we say what we need to improve on. People tell me all the time what I need to do. And, hopefully, we can make each other better.
How has your game changed this year compared to last year? Do you find yourself taking on a bigger role than you did last year?
I do talk a lot more and motivate more. ... I feel more passionate about playing.
As the point guard, you're the quarterback on the basketball floor. Are you comfortable being in that leadership role, being the person that makes things go for your team?
Sure. Somebody has to do it. I feel that I know all the plays, that I can help everyone out and put us in the best spot to score and win the game. But it is a hard role. You have everybody counting on you to bring the ball down and make the right moves and open people up.
How much motivation is there this year, even if is a rebuilding year, to try to get back to the state tournament?
It's going to be harder than last year, but that's where we want to be. We want to try to improve. Each day we work harder, keeping that in the back of our mind that we want to get there and hopefully take it all. But it's going to be a hard road to accomplish.
Even though you guys are off to a great start, some people might say you're a year away. Do you allow yourself to look that far ahead or are you just comfortable in staying in the moment and what you're trying to accomplish this year?
Staying in the moment. You have to take advantage of each day and year. You can't rely on the next year, when it's your last one to go all the way, or anything like that. It's like your wasting your life, not trying for something great. Take each moment as it comes. I never like to wait for something to happen. It has to happen now and then you can think about it more the next year.