Most high school basketball players never experience a state title game.
Even fewer get there twice.
In Kristi Kaniewski Ulrich's five years at Penn, she's coached two squads to state championship appearances. Penn lost both contests, one in a gritty battle with Bedford North Lawrence on Saturday, March 8, and the other to Jeffersonville in 2011.
Caroline Buhr and Jessica Alexander were there for both of them — learning as freshmen, leading as seniors.
"Since they were freshmen, the girls that were before them, they started the tradition of what Penn basketball is all about," Kaniewski Ulrich said. "These girls are senior leaders. They've continued that all the way through."
The duo — alongside fellow senior Maya Solomon who was sidelined all year due to injury — knew what was expected of them this season. The blueprint had been drawn. It was up to them to lay the foundation.
In the off-season, they lived at the gym, setting the tone and leading by example. Before the championship game, Alexander said it had been a lifelong dream to lead a team to the biggest stage against the biggest opponent.
But Buhr and Alexander, who passionately led the Kingsmen from an unlikely, one-loss regular season to an even more unlikely tournament run, don't get the fairy tale ending. They aren't the pair of freshman who avenged Penn's 2011 loss as seniors.
"Freshman year I never really saw the floor for that team, I never really knew what it felt like as a senior," Alexander said. "This moment is not what I imagined it was going to be. I told everyone I was going to cry either way. These obviously aren't the tears I wanted."
What they are, though, are two cornerstones in Penn's continued success, even after they graduate in May. It's their goal, they say. Their legacy. They want the underclassmen to continue what they helped build.
"We just want them to keep what we have here going," Buhr said. "We were so close. Just keep it rolling, juniors step up into seniors and keep this going how it is."
Buhr, who led Penn with 11.2 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game, will play at the University of San Diego next year. Alexander, who averages 9.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds, moves on to Saginaw Valley State University. Solomon will play at Maryville University in St. Louis.
"It's bittersweet to see them go," Kaniewski Ulrich said. "They have a tremendous amount of fight and heart in them and they just love and care about their teammates. Two outstanding young ladies. Maya Solomon, too, she's been injured but I know her heart and everything is right there."
While they begin their college careers, Penn will turn to returning starters Lauren Ellenberger, Kaitlyn Marenyi and Camryn Buhr, sixth man Kamra Solomon and bench contributors Claire Carlton and Casey Morton to pick up where Alexander and Caroline Buhr left off.
Alexander and Caroline Buhr leave Penn with more than 1,110 combined career points, a 92-11 career record, four sectional titles, three regional championships and two state appearances. It's up to the next class to keep feeding the beast.
"You have to have a group of kids that want to continue that fight and to have that drive every single year," Kaniewski Ulrich said. "We have big goals but we've got to take care of smaller things first."
Penn announces season end celebration
To celebrate a 25-2 season that ended as runner-ups in the state finals, Penn will host a celebration for the girls basketball team at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, in the Main Gym. The public is invited to attend and should enter the building through Door D or E.