Fifth season under head coach Darren Smith offers more-seasoned club with intriguing range of physical characteristics, skills
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
A year ago, Chillicothe High School girls’ basketball fans and other observers and opponents were wondering how CHS would cope with the graduation departure of the huge core group of players who had keyed four highly-successful seasons, including three-straight district championships and state-tournament appearances.
When the lightly-seasoned 2017-18 Lady Hornets sustained four losses in their first six outings, the reaction was that it was going to be a hard fall back toward mediocrity.
That proved to be a rush to judgment, however, as the wobbly beginning was no more than a baby’s first steps of walking. Once the Lady Hornets got used to be bipodal, rather than crawling on “all fours,” like that baby, soon they were zipping around, getting into all opponents’ cabinets and drawers.
From their 2-4 start, last year’s squad – with vital performances from its three seniors – racked up 15 victories in its next 19 games before a season-ending district-tournament loss to Savannah finalized its won-lost record at a very impressive 17-9.
Now, as the calendar flips to the start of a new season tonight at Hamilton, with multiple top components of last year’s successful group still in red and black, there’s little trepidation about any fall-off from the year before. Instead, there’s a sense of great possibility of returning to the 20-wins level or beyond and seriously challenging for a return to state play.
A last-minute switch back down to Class 3 from Class 4 actually might lessen the Lady Hornets’ state-tourney potential, since it lands them in the same district with an outstanding Trenton Lady Bulldogs club that’s itching to make up for last year’s district disappointment, but that’s far, far down the road.
Before then, having three starters back – one the top scorer and best all-around offensive player, one a tall, active, scrappy center who led the team in rebounds, and one last year’s top 3-point shooter – on a roster that includes an appealing mix of size, skill, speed, youth, and athleticism has hopes high of another successful and fun season of Lady Hornets hoops.
“We’ve got options,” Darren Smith, entering his fifth season as CHS girls’ head coach, acknowledges. “It’s just a matter of settling in on what option we want to use.
“…We’ve got a lot of interchangeable part. We’re got a lot of athleticism and shooters with it. I think we can move pieces around to make a fit.”
Adding to the excitement is the fact that two-thirds of this year’s core trio of wing guard/forward Hunter Keithley, center Kennedie Kieffer, and guard Jordan Hibner has two years of high school left.
The feisty, 5’11” Kieffer, an oft-used reserve as a sophomore and a 9.8 points and team-best 7.2 rebounds per game force as the starting low-post player as a junior, is on her last go-around with the program, but Keithley – last year’s top scorer (13.6 ppg) and learer in assists (3.2) and steals (1.7) – and Hibner (40 3s a year ago on 40 percent accuracy) are merely juniors with now a full-season’s experience behind them.
While the valuable trio of 2017-18 seniors that included point guard Harlie Jones, low-post forward Liberty Cox, and versatile reserve Maddie Graham has moved on, Smith and veteran assistant Terry McKiddy have a handful or more intriguing pieces to put around that nucleus.
Senior forward Maggie Pfaff, although continuing to deal with some health issues that restrict her from playing as many minutes as her talent otherwise might warrant, again will provide her quickness, quick-jumping ability, and scoring sense around the paint in short spurts.
Senior guard Catey Trout, already a willing defensive player as she edged into varsity use a year ago, got some offensive confidence as a junior and now should provide highly-capable minutes at both ends of the court as a senior – most likely as an early reserve.
A third 2018-19 senior could be the “sleeper” of this year’s team, given her “tools” and skills.
Laney Gaston, apparently healthy after an infection which spread into her legs sidelined her for this fall’s softball season, brings solid ball-handling and perimeter shooting ability to the “dance,” but in a strong, yet mobile, 5’9” frame. Having given a glimpse of her outside-shooting ability as a sparingly-used varsity reserve a year ago, she could emerge as a “sixth girl” force, if she doesn’t latch onto a starting spot.
Beyond those three seniors, who all will be key contributors, the coaches have several other younger players who will be utilized.
Junior Magy Thomas might be the team’s quickest player, a facility she uses well as a defensive pest. An adequate ballhandler who will become even-more comfortable at that as she gains varsity experience, she could start some against foes with quickness, but not a lot of size. Like Trout a year ago, as she salts away more varsity minutes, she has some shooting/scoring upside, too.
Although none of the Lady Hornets fits the bill of a prototypical point guard, Smith professes to be unconcerned.
“The kids we have that can run that point have experience,” he says. “Jordan Hibner, Magy Thomas, and Hunter Keithley could run it, if we needed to. Laney Gaston could run it for us. She handles the ball as well as anyone we’ve got.
“Yeah, we don’t have a lot of game-time experience at that (spot), but, when we run our ‘motion’ offense, for the most part, it’s not as vital as what it could be.”
Sophomore Maya Snyder looks ready to blossom into a bona fide varsity contributor. The younger sister of former Lady Hornet Lexi Snyder and ex-Hornets star Cade Snyder is similar in physical characteristics to Gaston – good height, mobility, and strength, but doesn’t have the perimeter shooting game, at least not yet. She projects to be a contributor as a backup/alternate to Pfaff in the paint area.
That same role beckons a freshman, Essie Hicks, younger sister of another, more-distant, former Lady Hornet, Kelsie. Hicks is about 5’9” tall, as well, and the mobility to be a component in a “big” lineup, should Smith choose to go that way for stretches of a game. In order to get her enough “game” minutes to accelerate her development – particularly as a points producer, she could end up playing in some freshman-only games, too.
Another sophomore who could see important action is 5’10” Brooke Horton. Against opponents with a strong, low-post type, she’ll be the backup to Kieffer, when the starter needs rest or is in foul trouble. When a foe has a more-mobile inside player, Pfaff, Snyder, or even Gaston would figure to get that defensive assignment while Kieffer is out.
“We’ve got a lot of youth, a lot of inexperience to go with those girls that got so much varsity experience last year,” summarizes Smith. “I think it’s a pretty good mix.”
Sifting through the options to find strategies and player combinations that click will be an important objective of early-season play, Smith shares.
“Our rotation and meshing those kids together that I think can play. It’s really hard to go more than eight or nine (players) deep in a game, so the right eight or nine with the right combinations will be vital for us.”
Also expected to be dressed out for varsity games and to gain experience are juniors Haley Kidd, a guard, and Kiley Kirkpatrick, a forward.
As for tonight’s opening opponent, Chillicothe will have its hands more than full, facing a Hamilton squad that returns its top player in junior guard Nora Ford and another starter in sophomore Grancen Prothero.
Ford’s 10th fourth-quarter points helped Hamilton fight off a less-experienced CHS group 51-46 in last year’s late-November opener. Ford finished with 24 that night.
“They’ve got the Ford girl who’s a tough matchup for us,” the CHS coach reports. “They’ve got a oouple of other pieces and they went to the (Class 3 state tournament) quarterfinals last year.”
Tonight’s play, originally to be a varsity doubleheader, but switched to girls’ “A” and “B” games because a number of Hamilton’s boys were still playing football this past Saturday, will begin at 6 p.m.
The boys’ game will be made up Jan. 15.