Sarah Burton’s Highland basketball curtain call

By Brendan Schnoebelen
Posted 3/1/24


I’m not sure if it’s dawned on Huskie fans that they have witnessed one of Highland’s brightest stars take her final basketball curtain call. Finishing with …

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Sarah Burton’s Highland basketball curtain call



I’m not sure if it’s dawned on Huskie fans that they have witnessed one of Highland’s brightest stars take her final basketball curtain call. Finishing with 1,041 points, 904 rebounds, 154 assists, 238 steals, and 153 blocks in four seasons.

She is the Southeast Iowa Super Conference North Division Player of the Year and one of the headliners of the SEISC’s All-Conference First Team for the 2023-2024 season.

Highland fans know her as Sarah Burton, while southeast Iowa knows her as not only one of the best girls basketball players, but one of the best all-around athletes.

Looking back, Highland’s first round regional matchup against North Cedar wasn’t supposed to be Burton’s final game in a Highland uniform. However, feelings of panic and fear arose late in the fourth quarter when the Huskies saw their slim lead vanish when the Knights sank a shot from deep.

With her back against the wall, Burton attempted to rally her squad, but it wasn’t enough. The upset was complete, and Highland was eliminated from the postseason.

Tears began to flow in the handshake line once the fourth quarter buzzer sounded as Highland headed into the locker room one last time as a team. Upon exiting the locker room, players ranging from seniors to freshman greeted their parents with teary-eyed hugs. After putting up a fitting one final double-double, Sarah Burton eventually emerged from the locker room in street clothes for the final time in her basketball career too.

It’s mind-boggling enough to put up over 1,000 career points, but to pair that with almost 1,000 career rebounds makes it even more impressive. But if there was any player that could accomplish such a feat, it would be Sarah Burton.

For a Highland team that garnered the most victories in a season since 2018-2019, playoff expectations were likely the highest since that time. Seeing her team’s slim lead disappear in just a handful of North Cedar possessions weighed heavily on Burton’s mind in the closing seconds.

“We had the ball with about 20 seconds left where I was thinking, ‘how are we going to score four points to get back up with them?’,” Burton said. The stakes were high on the night of Feb. 8th, and so was the pressure to perform well and deliver a win. “A lot of us haven’t been under that pressure before and I think that’s what got to us,” Burton concluded.

North Cedar fans traveled quite well from Stanwood, a town about an hour’s drive away. Complete with a student section of their own, it seemed as if once the Knights took the lead, their fans roared until the final buzzer sounded.

That, coupled with the unexpectedness of a loss, caused many Highland players to begin showing their emotions before the game was completed.

It wasn’t necessarily the loss that got Burton emotionally, but it was the realization she will never play a game of high school basketball with her friends again.

“It was just sad. Playing my last game on my home court under Coach Fink, especially when he’s helped me throughout my four years. Never getting to play with those girls again I think is what tore me up the most,” Burton said. “We have a good family dynamic within the team, so that’s what hit us, most of the seniors, the hardest,” Burton discussed.

Obviously, a senior that averaged a double-double per game is expected to take on a leadership role and be a mentor to younger players. Burton was glad to take on that role of taking the underclassmen under her wing.

“I taught them to go all out because a lot of them are worried about the difference between JV and varsity, even middle school, and varsity. I think as a captain I did a good job in teaching them that they are capable of doing certain things that they have never done,” Burton said. “I’m hoping to see them progress more next year,” Burton added.

Furthermore, Burton says that basketball helped develop her personally. “[Basketball] definitely taught me leadership. Being named a team captain kind of opened my eyes. I feel like, ‘oh people do view me as a captain and a leader,’ and that’s why I got voted in,” Burton reflected.

Burton’s newfound leadership skills will be put to the test in her final two remaining sports, track and field and softball.

 “I think that [leadership] will help moving on in track and softball. Just taking charge. I am very knowledgeable about most of the sports I play, so I think that’s been helpful, knowing that [her teammates] do believe in me. They do believe that I can lead the team,” Burton completed.

Now that her final basketball season is in the rearview mirror, Burton has shifted her attention to the oval and long jump, where she will be defending her Class 1A state long jump title this season. Unsurprisingly, the goal is to repeat as a state long jump champion, but Burton wants to focus on bringing home more than one gold medal and puts emphasis on another marquee event that she missed out on last season.

“Last year I didn’t make the Drake Relays, which was a little bit upsetting. I’m hoping to make it this year. I ended up making it my sophomore year. It’s always fun competing against people who are better than me so I can see what they’re doing to learn from them a little bit,” Burton said.

“With state, I’m hoping to get that state title again [in long jump]. For sure with the 100-meter dash I’m hoping to finish up there. I had a good chance [last year], but the time wasn’t right for me, and I’d like to see our relays do really well again this year,” Burton stated.

Highland Girls Basketball had four freshmen on their roster this season, and two of them plan to participate in track and field, Hailey Brun and Katelyn Thomann. Burton hopes to carry those new relationships with Brun and Thomann with her onto the oval.

“I think it’ll definitely benefit playing basketball with [Brun and Thomann],” Burton explains. “We can kind of feel each other out. We know what certain people struggle with and what I can help them with.”

Burton made sure to give a nod to her always helpful head coach, Angela Strobel.

“Coach Strobel is obviously very helpful with that [helping young athletes]. She’s very motivational,” Burton notes.

In high school sports, an athlete’s family support typically means the world to them. I vividly remember not only my immediate family, but my extended family coming to support me at my final cross country meet my senior year in 2022.

My goal was to set a new personal record that day, and even though I failed that goal my family was still waiting for me at the finish line with plenty of hugs to celebrate my career.

After most had left the campus of Highland High School after the bitter defeat to the Knights, I sat down at a table in the entryway where families had gathered to wait for their athletes.

I’m so glad I did.

Once Burton left the locker room, a healthy family gathering was awaiting her with smiles and open arms. Hugs were doled out like sweets in a candy store, and after a few pictures were taken with teammates, Burton and her gathering headed out of Highland High School into the night.

Just like my family, Burton’s was there for her too.

“They’ve had a huge impact on me as a person and as an athlete. I don’t think my mom has ever missed a game of mine along with my grandpa and my dad. They’re always there,” Burton said about her family.

Burton wrapped up her thoughts by describing the moment she turned the hallway corner and saw her family after the heartbreaking loss.

“I just walked out and looked at my mom and broke down because I knew that she’s proud of me no matter what, even with the outcome of the game,” Burton remembered.

Besides family and coaches, there always seems to be something or someone else that can be thanked for developing an average athlete into an outstanding athlete. After thanking her family and Head Coach Jody Fink, Burton named a few others that have helped her along the way.

 “The upperclassmen during my freshman and sophomore years knew that I could be a star one day, and that’s why they pushed me to be who I am, especially Mackinzie Hora and Katelyn Waters.”

While it’s difficult to fathom, Burton’s decorated athletics career will come to a close in just a few months. In her four years in high school, Burton has been a consistent four-sport athlete, participating in volleyball, basketball, track and field, and softball.

Which one will she miss the most?

“Right now, I’m going to have to stick with basketball. I would say even after my senior year I still think I’ll say basketball just because of the girls. They’re so fun to play with. It’s completely different from softball and volleyball. It’s just a lot more fun, and Coach Fink is an amazing coach. I have a lot of respect for him,” Burton said.

Graduation at Highland is set for Sunday, May 19th, and when Burton makes the famous walk up to the stage in the high school gym to receive her diploma, she’ll turn the page on her high school career and begin to write the next chapter of her life when she plans to obtain a real estate license.

However, there is still time to soak in a few more memories for Burton and every Huskie fan that enjoys watching her compete before it’s all over.

Not only could she repeat as a state champion in long jump, but she will return as one of the best in the 100-meter dash in Class 1A.

Plus, more hits will come this summer on the softball diamond for Burton, who comes off last season’s SEISC First Team All-Conference campaign as a shortstop primed and ready to avenge a devastating loss to Wapello in the second round of regional play.

So, has it ended? Certainly not.

Is the clock ticking? Yes, even the brightest stars eventually burn out.

Bottom line, enjoy Burton and the rest of her senior teammates while you still can, Huskie nation.

I think you’ll be glad you did.