Two years ago, Jason Culpepper took over a Tipton girls basketball program that won five games the year before he arrived.
In his first season, he led a resurgence as the Cardinals went 14-12. They went even further in year two of Culpepper’s coaching career, winning 20 games, claiming the Kaysinger Conference tournament championship and sharing the conference regular-season title with Windsor.
And they did it all under difficult circumstances.
When the team was about to open practice at the beginning of the season, it was in shock. When the Cardinals were scheduled to play their first game, the school and town were in mourning.
The first basketball practice was supposed to be Nov. 4, but just days before, Tipton football player Chad Stover was seriously injured during a district playoff game against Sacred Heart, injuries which took his life two week later.
Despite the roster in mourning, despite losing all-area player Loryn Hirst and forward Jessica Cooper to graduation, despite senior point guard Caroline Combs struggling with illness for much of the season, the Cardinals won more games in 2013-14 than in the previous two seasons combined and established themselves as a powerful team in the Kaysinger Conference.
The groundwork for that success was laid during the summer. In his first summer with the team, Culpepper wanted to build confidence. He put the Cardinals against a lot of Class 1 teams so that they could get the feel of winning. In the summer of 2013, Tipton changed course. Now used to winning in the regular season, Culpepper scheduled several larger schools.
“I wanted to take that next step forward,” he said. “We’re not going to be around .500, we’re going to be a 20-win team. To do that we scheduled some larger teams. We played and beat Brookfield. We played and beat Trenton. We played Harrisonville and lost by one or two. We went down to Branson, and that was a great bonding time for our team.”
They also used the summer to re-invent themselves. Hirst and Cooper were the top two rebounders on the Cardinals’ roster in 2012-13. With those two graduated, Tipton turned to a guard-oriented approach.
“Last summer, we realized that we lost two seniors, but we also realized we were another year experienced,” Culpepper said. “We were mostly juniors, except for Caroline and Jessica (Petree) being seniors and Destiny (Dowell) coming in as a sophomore.”
The Cardinals also learned to push the tempo, topping the 60-point mark 11 times in the regular season, including a season-high 80 points in a win over Green Ridge and reaching the 70-point mark in wins over Versailles, La Monte and Smithton.
“They realized we’re going to have to press some, and we’re going to have to work really hard for that press to work,” he said.
Leading the way were the two seniors, especially Petree, the undersized low-post player who still averaged 10.5 rebounds per game.
“Jessica throughout the year became one of the best leaders I’ve seen in girls or boys basketball,” Culpepper said. “To be the vocal leader, which sometimes you don’t see in girls basketball, and then the vocal leader who doesn’t get negative, it was always positive. It was great to have people that can lead other than coaches.”
By midseason, the Cardinals hit full stride. Tipton won Jan.20 at Stover and followed that with 12 more in a row, including the Kaysinger Conference tournament.
“Last year, one of the things we dealt with was having a good game and then getting over that game and moving on and preparing to get better,” Culpepper said. “They did a good job of after we played a game, that particular game would be over. After we played Versailles, we knew the next game would be just as important in getting better and getting better. They never came into practice with the attitude that ‘we won 10 games in a row, we’re pretty good.’ It was always that we’ve got to get better for the next game.”
“Before the conference tournament I reminded them, yeah we’ve won seven games in a row, but Windsor is practicing just as hard as we are. They want to win the same thing we want to win.”