LEWISTON, Idaho — Forgive Lewis-Clark State coach Brian Orr if he breaks into a two-step every time Kiara Burlage goes to the free throw line.
It’s likely music to his ears.
Burlage, the former Columbia Falls High School standout now in her senior season with the Warriors, set the program’s single-game record with 18 made free throws in a 90-84 win over Montana State-Northern earlier this season.
“Truthfully, I sing the same song every time (at the free throw line) so I don’t think about it,” Burlage said with a laugh.
“We don’t need to get into that,” she said, laughing harder, when pressed what song she sings to herself.
Whatever it is, it’s working. After a fine career at Columbia Falls during which the Wildkats finished no worse than third at the Class A state tournament and won the 2017 state championship, Burlage faced a challenging transition to the college game. She played in 30 games as a freshman and 34 as a sophomore, but Burlage didn’t have her breakout season until her junior year.
She started 31 games last year and led Lewis-Clark in points, rebounds, field goals made and free throws made, shooting 79.9 percent from the stripe. She was a first-team all-Frontier Conference selection and third-team NAIA All-American as the Warriors went 21-10 and qualified for the NAIA national tournament.
“It was because she started to play, I think, with more confidence and then learning that, hey, she’s got a lot of game,” Orr said. “She’s hard to guard. She can shoot the 3, she can put it on the deck, obviously when she gets to the foul line she can make free throws. She can score in so many different ways. She really is a matchup nightmare for most opponents.”
Not only did Burlage set the LCSC record for free throws in a single game with that performance against MSU-Northern, she recorded a career-high 34 points. It’s no surprise she did it against the Skylights, who feature three of Burlage’s former Columbia Falls teammates on the roster — Sydney Hovde, Peyton Kehr and Ryley Kehr.
“I would definitely say that my defense picks up when I play them, on them specifically, which should not happen,” Burlage admitted. “But with Sydney Hovde, I’ve battled with her since fourth grade, so every single time she has the ball, I’m going to attack her so much more aggressive than anyone else. I don’t know, just like a competition that’s been since childhood with them. It’s fun, though.”
Burlage and the Warriors have now played six games during this uncertain season — three against MSUN and three against Carroll College, which Orr said is “the best Frontier team I’ve ever seen.”
The Saints drilled LCSC 99-48 in the teams’ first meeting. They met again this past weekend, splitting in Lewiston, with Carroll winning 65-60 on Saturday and Lewis-Clark winning 60-50 on Sunday. While Carroll returned to Helena knowing its next game is Dec. 31 against Montana Tech, Lewis-Clark doesn’t know when it will play again.
The schedule on the Warriors’ athletic website doesn’t show another game, and that’s not a clerical error.
“It seems like it changes, honestly, almost every day,” Orr said.
He noted his team is scheduled to play again on Jan. 9 against College of Idaho in a non-conference game, but the Cascade Collegiate Conference schedule isn’t out yet.
“There are schools still deciding whether they’re going to play, so I don’t know. We’ve been told that we’re going to get it any day, but that was last week,” Orr said of the conference schedule.
Add that to the long list of hurdles athletic programs have had to overcome during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s not the most challenging obstacle the Warriors have faced.
“Our whole team has already had COVID, that was a whole experience in itself,” Burlage said.
“It was strange coming back to play, because in the Cascade Conference they have a little more of a steep protocol as returning to play than the Frontier Conference does. We have a whole week-long process,” she added. “The actual COVID experience was fine. All my roommates had it at the same time, so that was nice — all people on the team. Three of the four of us had symptoms and the other one didn’t show symptoms until Day 14, so I don’t know. It was just kind of a disaster, but we made it through. But the return-to-play protocol, we didn’t actually get to play for like a month, so we had, I think, three practices in before we played Northern and Carroll the first game, so our lungs were not seasoned, to say the least.”
The team has been able to get back into a practice rhythm and play those six games, but COVID-19 protocols are everywhere, especially for Burlage. She’s enrolled in the nursing program at LCSC and, though she said she’s “not allowed to deal with patients who are currently confirmed with COVID,” she still works 12-hour shifts in the hospital setting. Of course, there are plenty of safety protocols to follow, including wearing the proper personal protective equipment, goggles in labs and masks everywhere on campus.
Nursing is her calling, though. Burlage grew up in a family of nurses — her great-grandmother, both her mom’s parents, her mom, her mom’s siblings and her sister were or are nurses — and her parents previously owned assisted living and memory care homes.
“I always just was around that atmosphere and I feel like that’s become part of the person that I am,” Burlage said. “I’m always looking out for other people’s wellbeing, wanting to be caring. I can’t see myself doing anything else, so it seemed like a given to me.”
But: "I don’t want to be a cliche with it. I hope to take a different route. I’m also minoring in Spanish, so I’m going to be doing travel nursing hopefully at some point,” she added.
Nursing is her passion, but so too is basketball, and Burlage has the rest of this season left in her career. She could potentially play next year, too, after the NAIA announced players wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility by playing in the 2020-21 season, but that’s a decision that will be made down the line. Right now, she’s averaging 17.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game this season, and the Warriors, who also feature seniors Peyton Souvenir, Jansen Edmiston and Abbie Johnson, have seemed to gain their footing.
“We feel really lucky that Kiara chose LC State,” Orr said. “She’s been one of the most hardest-working players that we’ve ever had. Every day in practice, she gives you everything she can. And she’s really a passionate person — she’s passionate about her education, she’s into nursing. … She really wants to be a great basketball player, she’s a caring teammate, she’s a program kid, and we’re really fortunate that she chose LC.”
And that’s music to any coach’s ears.