By CONOR NICHOLL
On Oct. 15, Rexford-Golden Plains volleyball hosted a quadrangular that featured Dighton, WaKeeney-Trego, and GP’s top rival, Wheatland-Grinnell. Golden Plains lost to W-G, 16-25, 25-22, 25-22.
Golden Plains senior Mabel Lugo, the team’s top hitter, delivered 15 kills on 45 attempts, easily the Bulldogs’ highs, and hit an efficient .267. The 5-foot-8 outside/middle hitter finished with 10 digs and a pair of blocks. On one play, Lugo and a Wheatland-Grinnell player kind of collided under the net. Lugo heard her left knee pop.
“Being a really big competitor, I did not want to stop,” she said. “So I didn’t even go to the doctors. I just let myself rest for a couple of days, and I went back at it.”
Three days later, Golden Plains played in the Western Kansas Liberty League tournament. Lugo wore a left knee brace.
GP led Palco, 17-11 in the first set. Golden Plains junior Brooke Stoll served to Palco. Sophomore Kirsten Marcotte delivered an attack, which Stoll dug. Stoll passed to Golden Plains sophomore setter Kassie Miller. She set Lugo on the outside. Lugo came up and delivered a vicious kill.
Then, she fell to the ground in obvious pain. Lugo felt her knee pop and move sideways. The coaches helped Lugo off the court. Lugo finished the match with three kills and an error in seven attempts.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was kind of depressed on when I heard the news that I needed surgery. I cried. I kind of lost myself in my room knowing that I couldn’t play anymore.”
The kill marked the last high school athletic play for Lugo, a highly accomplished student-athlete in a decorated senior class at Golden Plains, a 1A school located 21 miles northeast of Colby.
Lugo missed basketball, a 24-1 season that yielded a second straight sub-state title game appearance. As a junior, Lugo helped GP finish 23-1 as she delivered a team-high eight rebounds a game. Golden Plains went to state basketball her freshman year.
“She’s a great volleyball player, but she absolutely loves basketball, and you can just see it every game, she just sat there, she just wanted to be out there so bad,” Golden Plains athletic director Travis Smith said of this past winter.
It was possible for Lugo to return for the last part of 2020 track, but the season was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. She is arguably Kansas’ top athlete who was unable to compete in both the winter and spring seasons.
Lugo qualified for the state track meet every spring and helped Golden Plains capture the 1,600-meter relay championship as a sophomore and runner-up her junior season. She was part of school record relays in the 400 and 1,600 in 51.27 seconds and 4:07.03, respectively. Lugo placed twice at state in the 400 relay.
In volleyball, Lugo started since midway through her freshman year. She earned honorable mention all-league as a sophomore and second team as a junior. In her career, Lugo helped GP improve from 13-18 to 15-19 to 25-14 in 2018.
This fall, Lugo still paced Golden Plains with 260 kills and a .237 hitting percentage en route to first team all-league honors. The Bulldogs finished 31-7, the best record in school history. Lugo was selected to play in the Northwest Kansas all-star volleyball match.
In October, Bethel College head coach Stacy Middleton started to recruit Lugo, even with the injury. Lugo remained focused on high school athletics and not on the possibility of college sports. Middleton kept in contact through the winter. On May 11, Lugo committed to Bethel volleyball. Lugo has started running and jumping again and is excited to continue her career. She carried a 3.8 GPA and has $18,000 in scholarships at Bethel.
“Honestly, I missed so much,” she said.
The signing provided a coda to a close Golden Plains’ 18-member senior class, a group that Lugo said has bonded over UNO, the card game. Golden Plains’ staff, including Smith, counselor Chris Lee, and technology coordinator Judy Rogers, have helped recognize the Bulldog students.
GP has a 57-minute high school awards show that is available on You Tube and Twitter, which Lugo opened with a prayer. GP plans to have a graduation ceremony July 18. Smith hopes school returns to the classroom in August and that students don’t take “anything for granted.”
“Such a great year academically, athletically, through our activities, just because we weren’t in school, we wanted to be able to honor all our kids,” Smith said. “And especially our seniors who aren’t going to be able to at this time walk across the stage or step on the track one last time and things like that.”
Normally, Golden Plains has a senior video instead of a speaker for graduation. This year, Bulldog seniors posted videos on the school’s Twitter page @GP_Bulldogs. Rogers, the mother of former GP all-state football player and longtime current Victoria assistant football coach Dan Rogers, does excellent work with the school web site, athletics information, history, stories, links and the yearbook. A Golden Plains graduate, she assisted with the videos.
“She is the epitome of what it means to be a Golden Plains Bulldog,” Smith said. “She’s at all the activities. She’s always taking pictures. She is the yearbook sponsor, so she is always wanting to capture every aspect of the student’s life, and one thing that’s really neat about Judy is that she wants to include everybody – just not those kids who are in the activities or in sports. She wants to include every kid in the school, and every kid will have two or three pictures in a yearbook. She wants to make sure that they feel special.”
Taryn Fleckenstein earned a Rudd scholarship to Fort Hays, a four-year full ride award worth approximately $70,000. Only 30 Kansans have the scholarship each year. Fleckenstein won a bevy of other scholarships, including Dane Hansen, that totaled more than $8,500. A Governor’s Scholar, she plans to major in nursing.
Fleckenstein was a basketball reserve and was part of the ’18 scholar’s bowl team that finished as state runner-up, the top showing in GP annals. The Bulldogs won league scholar’s bowl this year, too. Flint Hodge plans to enlist in the army.
Zoey Hillis has signed with Pratt Community College volleyball. Harley Weese, a multi-sport standout, is heading to Northwest Oklahoma University for baseball. Golden Plains, like many 1A schools, does not offer baseball.
Weese, who lives in Colby, has played baseball in Colby or the surrounding area since he was little. According to his NCSA Sports page, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound right-handed pitcher has a top fastball velocity of 92 miles per hour. He can run the 60-yard dash in 6.1 seconds.
Smith called Weese “naturally talented at everything,” and believes the senior could have played college football. Weese went to Colby for the first semester of his junior year and then returned to Golden Plains.
GP six-man football graduated at least 75 percent of its passing, rushing and receiving yards off an 8-2 squad in ’18. However, Weese stepped in with 1,711 rushing yards, 34 offensive scores, and passed for 229 yards and seven TDs. Golden Plains finished 7-4 in ’19.
“He’s the fastest kid on the team,” Smith said.
Lugo showed her speed as a freshman. Her longtime role model is KayCee Miller. She graduated from GP in 2019 and played basketball at Barton County in ’19-20. Miller is the only girl in Bulldog history to place at the state track meet all four years. In ’17, the Class 1A regional was held in Hays in cold and misty weather. Lugo told Smith “I can’t feel my legs.”
Miller told Lugo: “I know you can do it. I believe in you.”
Lugo was the anchor for the 1,600 relay. When she got the baton, Golden Plains was in fifth place, a spot from qualifying. Lugo was 100 meters behind fourth.
“(KayCee) was believing in me even though I didn’t believe in myself, and I wanted to do something for her,” Lugo said.
Lugo passed the fourth-place team with around 15 meters left. At state, Lugo took third in the open 400.
“It’s one of the best relay legs I’ve ever been a part of as a track coach,” Smith, who just completed his 21st year at Golden Plains, said.
In ’18, the 1,600 relay featured Lugo, Miller and twins Ashley and Brooke Stoll. The school mark of 4:14 had stood since 2002. Golden Plains won the Colby met in 4:12 and continued to lower the record. At regionals, the quartet ran 4:18.82, though faced little competition. Smith walked down to the track and saw the relay upset with the slow time.
The next week, GP set the school record in the state prelims at 4:07. In the finals, the Bulldogs easily won in 4:10.09, more than five seconds ahead of runner-up Centralia. Golden Plains would have placed in all six classes. Last year, the same foursome earned second in 4:09.13 behind Kiowa County, the first time the Bulldogs had lost the event in two years. Smith said all four have the same personality.
“They don’t like to lose,” he said.
Lugo, Hillis, Kassie Miller and the Stolls were the key volleyball players. In basketball, Lugo was forced to watch.
“I cried every time I saw them play,” she said. “It was just kind of tough for me not being out there.”
“Basketball is by far her favorite sport, and it just devastated her,” Smith added.
Smith also coaches junior high basketball, which practices during the school day. Lugo was his student aide during practice time. He has tried to have Lugo go into teaching/coaching.
“I could have just let her go, and she could have coached,” he said.
At first, Lugo was going to try to play basketball injured. However, her knee “kind of popped” just walking with the brace on. Lugo’s dad said she was done and couldn’t risk hurting her leg worse.
“I knew from there that my dad was correct,” Lugo said.
Lugo received another shock when school was cancelled. In the middle of Spring Break, Lugo watched a movie with her two younger siblings. An Almena-Northern Valley friend called, heavily crying. The friend told Lugo senior year was cancelled because of the coronavirus. At first, Lugo thought just NV was affected. Then, she started to receive messages and calls. Lugo looked up the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Lugo was hoping to return for track and qualify again for the state meet. Instead, she has earned the Bethel opportunity. At first, Lugo wasn’t going to play in college.
“I knew it was going to be different,” she said. “I felt like I was going to get too scared. I knew that I probably couldn’t do it. I thought to myself, I was like, ‘I can’t do it,’ but now that I started coming back, and running again, jumping. … I have been talking to some of my coaches, and my parents have told me, ‘You can’t really give up your athletic side. You have been with sports since practically your whole life.’”
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