FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Coming off the first state tournament appearance in school history, when the Braves finished fourth and went 23-3 a year ago, the objective is to do it all over again. Or get even better. For coach Clay Oakes’ girls, it starts with defending the Kaw Valley League championship — no easy feat with last year’s co-champion, Mill Valley, lurking. Led by senior guard Anna Deegan, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, Bonner Springs nonetheless believes it has a strong chance to make it happen.
After sharing the Kaw Valley League championship last season, it should be another strong season for coach John McFall’s squad. The Jaguars went 18-4 a year ago and return all five starters, including two first-team all-league performers in seniors Stephanie Lichtenauer and Tanner Tripp. Lichtenauer, a forward, averaged 12.6 points and a team-high 4.5 rebounds last season, while Tripp, a guard, averaged a team-high 14.4 points with 3.3 rebounds.
Blessed with three NCAA Division I basketball talents — point guard Kelsey Brooks (Arkansas), center Mikey Crall (Wisconsin) and shooting guard Jaylah Jackson (South Dakota) — along with feisty shooting guard Vashti Neal, who inked a softball scholarship with Prairie View A&M earlier this month, the Ravens are eager to build off a 23-2 season. Coach Joel Branstrom’s squad reached the Kansas 6A state final a year ago and hopes to return for a second crack at the title.
St. Thomas Aquinas
The Saints have made it to state 18 straight seasons. Last season, coach Rick Hetzel’s squad finishing 16-9 and claiming third in Kansas 5A. It won’t be easy, though, for a team with only two seniors. Of course, Aquinas does return four starters — including junior guards Tia Weledji, who averaged 9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds, and Allie Dierks (5.9 ppg) along with two interior players senior Haleigh Cindrich, who signed with Rockhurst, and sophomore Claire Ferguson.
A year ago, the Cougars broke through with a 16-7 season that culminated in an appearance at Kansas 6A state. Now, coach Jeff Dickson’s squad is eager to show last year wasn’t a fluke. Last season’s leading scoring, junior McKayla Ross, who averaged 12.5 points with 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.2 assists, is back. SM Northwest also gets a boost from the return of senior Anna King, who missed last season with a torn ACL, but a predominantly young group beyond that must step up.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Bailey Geiman, Blue Valley, senior
As a junior, Geiman was among three Tigers who scored in double figures for the Kansas 5A runners-up, but it’s her show now without Taylor Leathers and Mackenzie Johnson. Geiman, a junior forward, averaged 10.0 points and 4.1 rebounds with a team-leading 1.7 assists a season ago — numbers will have to bump up for Blue Valley to approach last season’s lofty 21-4 mark.
Alexis Hughes, Bishop Miege, senior
Quite frankly, going 11-11 last season wasn’t up to snuff for the Stags, which have won 16 state championships during Terry English’s tenure. Miege hopes to turn things around with a strong senior class led by Hughes, who averaged 11 points as a junior en route to all-state honorable mention honors. Hughes signed with Missouri State.
Kennedy Kirkpatrick, Lawrence Free State, senior
Kirkpatrick, who averaged 18.9 points to lead the Sunflower League in scoring last season, signed with Bowling Green earlier in the month. Now, she’ll try to lead the Firebirds, who return four other players with starting experience, to the Kansas 6A state tournament. Free State finished 16-6 a year ago, but hopes for better things in 2012-13.
Jessica Sheble, Olathe North, senior
Slowly but steadily, the Eagles have risen from the ashes the last few seasons led by Sheble, who averaged 13 points and 8.6 rebounds as a junior. She signed earlier in the month with Deb Patterson’s vaunted Kansas State program, but there’s little doubt that Sheble would love to end her high school career on a high note. Coach Josh Price’s squad will try to build off an 8-13 campaign last season.
Taylor Williams, Bishop Ward, senior
Williams would be on the short list for the DiRenna Award if such a thing existed after averaging 13.3 points with 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks in as a junior. A four-year starter, she signed with Memphis and now can focus on trying to help the Cyclones finish better than last season’s 7-14 record in her final season playing for her father, Ward coach Carlos Williams.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
BV North at St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. 6
It’s a big early-season test for the Mustangs, who return four starters off a 15-7 team. Seniors sharpshooter Ali Pollard, who set the school record as a junior for three-pointers in a game, and post Caroline Dupont are back along with two juniors, forward Bria Pierce and point guard Maria Klug. With senior guard Christian Keys joining the starting lineup, BV North hopes to show it’s a contender.
Olathe Northwest vs. Rock Bridge, Dec. 14
The Ravens have a brutal season-opening run. It includes a battle Saturday at Hopkins (Minnetonka, Minn.) — the No. 25 team in MaxPreps’ national rankings — but the matchup with the nation’s No. 14 squad at the Metro Sports HyVee Shootout that stands out even more. The point-guard matchup between ONW senior Kelsey Brooks and Bruins sophomore Sophie Cunningham is particularly intriguing.
Leavenworth at SM East, Jan. 4
Under first-year coach Derek Zeck, Leavenworth could face rough seas early with Blue Valley and Olathe South on the pre-Christmas slate, but the Pioneers have talent and, if it doesn’t show immediately, watch for a surge in the second half of the season. Sophomores Tashia Jones and Rachel Blackburn gained valuable experience a year ago, and a win against the Lancers would be a coup for Leavenworth.
Spring Hill at De Soto, Jan. 8
The Wildcats played inconsistently a year ago, but those lumps should pay off this season led by sophomore guard Megan Bonar. Bonar, whose dad, Jim, coaches De Soto, averaged 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds last year. She should be a more polished player and the matchup with the Broncos, who are now led by seniors Macy Carbajo and Melody Henson, will show how far the Wildcats have come.
SM Northwest at Olathe South, Feb. 19
Olathe South has won at least 21 games and reached the Kansas 6A state tournament eight consecutive seasons. Led by junior Bailey Rinehart, sophomore Kylee Kopatich and post Riley White, one of two Falcons seniors, a similar run should be expected. Of course, the season’s final week, which begins with a test against the upset-minded Cougars and McKayla Ross, will show if coach Steve Ingram’s girls are ready.