Top-seeded basketball Hornets, Lady Hornets will play for state-tournament berths on home court

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — For a third time in six years, both Chillicothe High School’s varsity basketball teams will take the court Saturday evening/night (Feb. 29) to play for district championships and advancement to state play. CHS fans hope the third time, indeed, will be the charm.
Trips to the 2019-20 Class 3 state tournaments are within the Lady Hornets’ and Hornets’ reach, at long last, as the Chillicothe clubs – both the No. 1 seed in the Class 3 District 14 tournament being played on their home court – endeavor again to make it a night to remember for their school and followers.
The Lady Hornets (19-7) will rematch with the defending district champions – Trenton’s Lady Bulldogs (15-11) – in Saturday’s 5 p.m. opener at the CHS gymnasium. The Hornets (21-4) will follow by taking on Richmond’s Spartans (24-3) at about 6:45 p.m.
In both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, Chillicothe – assigned to Class 3 after decades at the next-higher classification – had both its teams in the district finals at Lawson. Each time, the CHS girls got championship night off on the right foot with victories – the second year over Trenton, only to have the boys drop, first, a 3-points decision to Higginsville and, the next year, a 4-pointer to the host Cardinals. Chillicothe's boys have not earned a district crown since 2005.
Now, with the tournament in their own backyard, the home teams hope to sweep district crowns for the first time since 1996-97.
The prize awaiting Saturday’s winners/survivors – a sectional-round (first-round) berth in the state tourney and a game against the District 13 champs at Moberly Area Community College’s Fitzsimmons-John Arena next Wednesday evening.
The Class 3 District 13 finals, which will take place Saturday afternoon at Centralia, will pit the girls’ top seed Macon (21-4) against fellow Clarence Cannon Conference member Palmyra (22-3), the second seed and the top-seeded Monroe City boys (25-2) against No. 2 seed Palmyra (21-4) in another all-CCC matchup.
The long-range objective for all eight of those teams is advancement to the state’s Show-Me Showdown I state semifinals and finals at Springfield in a couple of weeks.
Today’s Chillicothe-Trenton pairing is a rematch of last year’s District 14 final at Higginsville, which a senior-laden THS squad dominated early and won handily en route to getting to Springfield and finishing third in the state.
This year, while Chillicothe – with only two returning starters – has prospered nicely against a very-rugged regular-season schedule with multiple sophomores and freshmen stepping into major roles, along with a junior starter and a senior reserve.
Trenton, even with 5’10” junior All-State forward Maci Moore as the holdover from its stellar team of a year ago, has kept its head above water, but only a bit. A lack of a consistent second scoring threat – particularly from the perimeter – has allowed opponents to hamstring the Lady Bulldogs’ attack by devoting multiple defenders and special defenses to minimize Moore’s damage.
When Chillicothe had its annual rivalry game against Trenton in mid-December, even though it was only 2-2 beforehand and THS 3-2, the Lady Hornets got off to a solid start and – with the size and mobility to make it tough for Moore to get the ball or do her often-devastating offensive rebounding – never let the host Lady Bulldogs get in the game, which ended as a 58-29 CHS triumph.
Both teams have advanced their game since then, but Chillicothe with better results. Trenton’s most notable change since the previous meeting is the insertion of freshman forward Kendall Crowley into its starting lineup. Her role, however, is to rebound and – when possible – score around the basket off offensive boards and when left alone by defenders helping on Moore.
When on their game, the Lady Hornets undoubtedly have more individual scoring weapons and the ability to do big offensive damage either inside or out.
On an individual note, Chillicothe senior guard Jordan Hibner will begin the district final with 69 3-points baskets on the season – two shy of the program’s season record she established last year when she hit her final 3-points attempt of the season late in the lopsided loss to Trenton at Higginsville.
If the Lady Hornets prevail, they’ll join another 2019-20 Midland Empire Conference tri-champion – Maryville – in the Class 3 state field of 16.
Maryville on Friday night won a battle of MEC tri-champs when they turned back Kansas City: St. Pius X 48-42 behind 20 points from freshman Anastyn Pettlon and 19 by senior All-Stater Serena Sundell. Those two scored all 19 MHS points in the fourth quarter as the Lady ’Hounds rallied from 1-point deficits both at halftime and after three quarters.
Saturday’s boys’ title contest in Chillicothe – on paper – looks to be far likelier to be a close battle which, like the Hornets’ district-finals losses in ’15 and ’16, could come down to a final possession.
In addition to this year’s prizes at stake, CHS would like to even the score for Richmond’s district-semifinals victory over it last year.
Both squads have had excellent regular seasons and have well-rounded, multi-faceted lineups which can score inside or out and defend effectively.
Chillicothe routinely gets well over half of its offense from the senior tandem of 6’3” Westley Brandsgaard and 6’4” guard C.J. Pfaff.
Brandsgaard is averaging 20.7 points per game with his mix of long-range shooting, bruising drives and low-post moves, and 77 percent free-throw shooting. He’s hitting 56 percent from the floor for the year – 43 percent beyond the arc.
Pfaff – most often the team’s point guard, but also utilized as a shooter on the wing, a high-post presence, and even low-block option – is scoring at a 17.7 points per game clip on 41 percent 3-points shooting and 55 percent overall work from the field. He knocks down 75 percent of his foul shots.
Pfaff, however, has recorded nine scoring-rebounding double-doubles on the season, averaging snaring 8.6 caroms. In addition, he’s the team leader in assists (3.5), steals (2.0), and shot blocks (1.9).
A third senior, 6’4” Bradley Riley, provides the third-most common offensive threat – netting seven points a game on 53 percent shooting. While, switched from guard to an inside role this season, he has developed some effective inside scoring ability, his guard’s-vision passing ability and 3-points shooting can make him a wild card for opponents.
While not usually counted on to score prolifically, junior guards Mason Baxter and Hayden Simmer can hurt foes with their offense, especially if ignored. Both also provide key value in other areas like defense and rebounding.
The Hornets’ only liberally-used reserve is freshman guard Griff Bonderer, who has had several shining moments this season, but looked a bit rattled by being in postseason play in Thursday’s semifinal win over Brookfield.
Whereas Chillicothe has twin offensive stars – and thus more options, Richmond’s only player who can routinely create his own scoring chances and points is quick, 5’11” senior guard Dionte Marquez. He’ll trigger from anywhere inside 25 feet, but is especially if the Spartans get the ball out on a fast break.
Compared to last year, he has more scoring support around him, especially inside where burly 6’6” sophomore Jack Gogue is an excellent rebounder at both ends of the floor and has a deft shooting touch inside six feet. Additionally, 6’2” sophomore Keyshawn Elliott has the size, strength, and athleticism to do damage inside 15 feet.
While working to fend off Gogue and Elliott in the paint area and Marquez all over, Chillicothe also will need to keep tabs on short sophomore guard Layne Cavanah, who can nail open 3s.
Like Chillicothe, Richmond leans heavily on its starters.
A year ago in the teams’ district meeting, Marquez’s 17 points led RHS to its 38-35 victory over the Hornets, a game Chillicothe led by five going to the last period, but was outscored 16-8 the rest of the way. CHS had the last possession, but its attempt with under four seconds left to set up Pfaff, who scored 23 of the team’s 35 points, for a potential overtime-forcing 3-pointer went awry.
There are a couple of caveats on that game worth noting from Chillicothe’s perspective.
Even though his offensive statistics for last season were relatively similar, but not quite as strong, to this year’s, We. Brandsgaard had a very tough outing against Richmond. He scored only five points, hitting nary a 3-pointer in four tries and getting to the free-throw line only three times (making all of them). A more-customary night from him in this rematch is both likely and a necessity for CHS’ hopes.
Additionally, Chillicothe played last year’s game without then-sophomore starter Baxter, due to a recurrence of an earlier ankle sprain. Their primary guard defender, his absence hurt in trying to keep Marquez down.
With Baxter available this year, the Hornets should be better equipped, from a team defense perspective, and their offense should be in better synch, which should translate to normalcy for We. Brandsgaard.
A key factor in Saturday’s boys’ game could be how the officials view and call play under the CHS basket when We. Brandsgaard attempts to squirm and muscle his way to the rim for shots.
If the taller, bulkier Gogue, who likes to block shots, happens to get called for a foul or two trying to deny the tenacious Hornets senior, that could swing the pendulum far in CHS’ favor. If Gogue is successful in blocking some Brandsgaard shot attempts and denying him second- and third-chance opportunities when the Hornet misses – all without being whistled for contact, it could take away a key source of Chillicothe points.