Senior leadership cannot be underestimated.

The Pittsburg State women have five seniors — center Larissa Richards, guard Brooke Conley, guard Courtney Tate, guard Britnee Foster and guard Amanda Orloske — at the center of a historical season for a basketball program on the rise.

Senior leadership cannot be underestimated.

The Pittsburg State women have five seniors — center Larissa Richards, guard Brooke Conley, guard Courtney Tate, guard Britnee Foster and guard Amanda Orloske — at the center of a historical season for a basketball program on the rise.

Richards and Tate have been at Pitt State since the start of the Lane Lord era — Tate redshirted the 2007-2008 season and Richards scored six points and snagged three rebounds during her first collegiate game, which unfortunately resulted in a season-ending ACL tear. Both players suffered knee injuries early in the 2008-2009 season and have endured a long road.

“It does take a lot of hard work but I give all the credit to my teammates and my coaches because they push me even more and they want me out there even more than I want to be out there,” Tate said. “The injuries . . . I have the rest of my life to be injured, so, I mean right now, I’m just enjoying the moment.”

Including a knee surgery when she was at Great Bend High School, Richards has gone under the knife five times on her knees.

Before the season, Lord said that Pitt State’s fortunes would rise or fall on the ability of Richards to remain healthy for her senior year.

“She’s been here a long time and she’s had a few injuries,” Lord said. “She’s been through so much and her heart and her will to continue to try to get herself healthy to play a full season . . . we really had to talk her into playing this year because her knees were so bad. For her to be healthy and to be as successful as she’s been all year, just a catalyst on defense, probably our defensive MVP, just shows what kind of a person she is. I’m just thankful for her.”

Richards stayed the course and she’s played in a career-high number of games this season, barring a two-week four-game stretch where she missed time as precautionary measures from concussion-like symptoms created by a collision during the first Northeastern State (Okla.) game.

Meanwhile, Tate mastered a transition from starting 27 games to more of a sixth man role her senior year, starting nine games.

“It was a little different,” Tate said. “I embraced the role. Coach Lord sat me down and talked to me about it, which really helped at first. I’ve learned to trust him and I just decided that ultimately whatever he says will be best for the team. I’m more than happy with the role and what we’re doing as a team is so much more important than what I do as an individual.”

Tate has been a supreme example of the team-first mentality of Pitt State this year.

“Just a tough kid that was an All-Defensive player for us a year ago and started every game for us,” Lord said. “This year, she’s been our Sixth Man Award guy that comes in and just gives us energy and plays great defense. She’s battled her whole career through injuries, just a testament to her heart and to her character.”

Entering the Elite Eight, Tate ranked second on Pitt State in total assists (89) and first in steals (35), continuing her ball-hawking and passing duties from last year.

Orloske came to Pitt State out of Wichita Heights High School (Lord’s former stomping grounds) and both Conley and Foster are junior college transfers.

Lord on Orloske: Amanda Orloske is probably the player in our program that has helped build our program because she’s the first one in the gym, last one to leave. She leads by example and that’s something I’ll always remember about Amanda. Just a great student-athlete and represents our college very well.

Lord on Foster: Britnee Foster, a two-year player. Started 17 games a year ago and has taken the backup role this year and handled it with maturity.

Lord on Conley: Brooke’s probably had the most improved year of anybody in our program. We saw glimpses of it last year but I think her maturity and the way that she’s been able to go from just a shooter to a driver and accept that responsibility and then the defensive plays she’s made for us all year, she’s won a couple games for us on the defensive end. But most importantly, she’s an energy giver. Her smile’s infectious and I know it gets me going every day. It’s fun to watch her clap in people’s face on the court and she’s just an energy gal that helps our team keep its motor going during games.

Entering the Elite Eight, Conley ranked second on the Gorillas in scoring at 12.8 points per game, behind only freshman sensation Lizzy Jeronimus. Conley averaged 4.7 rebounds and had 50 assists, 27 steals and 23 blocked shots.

In the beginning

Richards: I was talking with Coach Lord ever since I was in high school and he was at Barton. He got the job here and asked me to come on a visit. I came on a visit and I loved how the community was so involved. I love the campus and it was just like back at home (Great Bend) for me.

Tate: It’s really a long story. I tore my ACL in high school (Grandview, Mo.) toward the end of the year so I didn’t have a lot of looks beside jucos. My coach hooked me up with Coach Lord and I didn’t actually know where Pittsburg was at first. Just talking with him and giving me the confidence even though I was hurt, that itself attracted me.

Orloske: I didn’t know about Pitt until I heard Coach Lord was coming here because he was the coach at my high school (Wichita Heights). He left my freshman year so I never got to play for him in high school. But then he recruited me and I came up here and liked the atmosphere, the campus and everything else.

Conley: Coach Lord recruited me to my juco (Barton County Community College) and I signed to Barton when he signed to Pittsburg. And then after my sophomore year was up at juco, he contacted me to come down here.

Foster: When I came here on my visit two years ago, I saw how much Pittsburg State plays as a team. I love the community. I saw all the support they get for games so that attracted me to here.

Team first

Foster: We all love each other. We get along very well. We all hang out with each other. We push each other every day during practice. We cheer on each other during a game. We lift each other up when we have to. We’re like one big family.

Orloske: We’ve had different people step up every game whether it’s just a few minutes off the bench or our starters. It seems like anybody could step up and make a big shot or make a big play at any time for us. Everybody has to be ready on our team because you never know when you’re going to get your shot.

A great season

Conley: It’s been a good experience. Last year, we had a good team but I think this year we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so we’ve come together as one and here we are. We have a good bond and we’re more like sisters and family than teammates. So, 15 equals 1 for us.

Foster: Last year, we had a good season and I thought the seniors took on a good role last year. This year is my senior year with the other four and I think we took on a good role this year. We had a very good season this year, way more than I expected. We’ve made a lot of history. That’s one thing we can be proud of, we’re in the history books.

Orloske: It’s been awesome, definitely the best year we’ve had here.

Richards: Starting out 14-0, it was great and then we just took it game-by-game. Then, to win the region, it was amazing. It felt really good and now we’re going to nationals. It’s something that we’ve never done.

Tate: We all want to win a national championship. Starting off 14-0, I don’t think any of us imagined that but we’re more than happy with it.

Pitt State finished its historical season 27-6, the best record in program history.