Turnpike Tussle: MIAA’s top teams ready for rematch

Eric Smith

The Universities of Washburn and Emporia State are only an hour, separated by only 59 miles on the Kansas Turnpike, down Interstate 35. At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Lee Arena, the Hornets and Lady Blues will meet for the second time this season and play in the 77th edition of the rivalry that is the Turnpike Tussle.

“It’s going to be a big game,” said Brette Ulsaker, junior. “They were our third loss, really set us back into third or fourth place in the league. It’s our rival and our Senior Night so hopefully we can come up big.”

While the Emporia State women lead the all-time series 40-36, the Lady Blues have won 13 of the last 18, including four of the last five.

“With a nice rivalry, both teams are good,” said Ron McHenry, Lady Blues head coach. “Both teams are always contending for the conference championships and are always playing in the NCAA tournaments. That makes the rivalry better, especially for the fans. I’d like to have a rival that we could beat every time but that’s not the case.”

In 24 games and nine years of coaching against Emporia, McHenry is 16-8. And during that time, there have been several memorable rivalry games.

Last season, the Lady Blues beat the Hornets three times including a 73-58 victory in the NCAA South Central Regional in Canyon, Texas, that ended Emporia’s season.

The Lady Blues also traditionally have played well at home against Emporia going 6-1 in their last seven versus the Hornets in Lee Arena including having won four in a row. Last season, the Lady Blues won 78-52 after getting out to a halftime lead of 40-21.

“In last year’s [home] game, we played off the wall against them,” said Ulsaker. “We kind of controlled it from the start and we’re done almost by half which is a rarity for that game.”

Ulsaker remembers that game, and holding Emporia’s Michelle Stueve, the MIAA’s career scoring leader, to 11 points on 2-12 shooting.

“I just remember last year [Janice Bright] and I talking about shutting down [Michelle] Stueve and just making sure she didn’t get double-digit points at our place,” said Ulsaker. “I mean I’m a Kansas kid so I’ve always known the Washburn-Emporia rivalry, so that was just a big deal last year.”

In 2004-05, when the Lady Blues won the NCAA Division II National Championship, Washburn beat Emporia State three out of four times.

“We had some big games in our national championship run,” said McHenry.

While Washburn plays well at home, in Emporia, the Lady Blues are 4-4 in their last eight trips.

“Those are the ones that probably mean the most,” said McHenry. “The ones down at their place because the hardness it is to play there.”

McHenry also said that since the two schools are so close in proximity, the rivalry is important for recruitment.

“Usually we’re head-to-head in recruiting,” said McHenry. “You want to beat the teams you recruit against because that gives you a little bit of an in. We have a lot of Kansas kids on the team. They do too. And they know the rivalry.”

Although the game on Wednesday has lost some its luster and intensity because of a heartbreaking loss for the Lady Blues Saturday, the game still has meaning for the postseason. The Lady Blues have second place in the MIAA wrapped up, but still have a chance at winning the conference if Emporia loses its last two games.

Stevie Schultz, freshman guard, believes that the Lady Blues can handle the Hornets this time around.

“I think the difference between our team right now and the last time we played them is that we’re playing together a lot more and everything is just flowing a lot better,” said Schultz. “I think we’re going to go out and get them. It’s going to be a tough game no matter what.”