Good blend of experience, emerging talent generated MEC, district titles
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Robbed by the novel coronavirus pandemic of a chance to formally celebrate their accomplishments and be publicly recognized for all of their achievements, the 2019-20 Chillicothe High School basketball Lady Hornets nevertheless will rest secure in the annals of program history as one of the finest and most-accomplished Lady Hornets hoops teams ever.
Given that the threat from COVID-19 prevented holding the traditional postseason awards dinner and program, no overarching review and summation of what the players and coaches did and how they did it occurred in the time immediately following the season, in hopes that the public health threat might moderate enough that a formal event could take place on a somewhat-delayed basis. Eventually, however, that hope withered and died.
Now, barring adverse developments related to the pandemic arising over the next month or so, as prospective 2020-21 Chillicothe High School athletes have begun in-person offseason training together, as CHS prepares to stage its 2020 prom and commencement events months after their traditional times, and as a member of the team has just reaped additional benefit from her efforts, the time is ripe for according due recognition to the 20-8 squad which earned both Midland Empire Conference and Class 3 District 14 championships and concluded its season on March 4 in the first round of state-tournament play.
“I thought this team had a tremendous year,” Darren Smith, CHS head coach, reflected for the C-T last week. “I think if you would have asked about anybody (prior to the season) if we were to tie for a conference championship, win a district championship, and win 20 games, that they would take that.
“These girls accomplished that feat.”
Not only did last season’s club accomplish those team goals – sharing the MEC title with Maryville and Kansas City: St. Pius X and taking the district crown on their home court with win No. 20 before battling hard in the 50-40 state-tourney loss to eventual state semifinalist Macon, but it also saw some excellent individual play and promising development and emerging talent among its underclasses.
When the final buzzer of the season sounded in Moberly Area Community College’s Fitzsimmons-John Arena, two seniors had produced remarkable statistical achievements.
Guard Jordan Hibner, who began the season already owning the program’s single-game (seven) and season (71) records for 3-points field goals made, both broke her season record set the prior year by netting 73 and thus shattered the former career record with 186. While Hannah Jones’ prior career standard of 132 had been accomplished during a 4-seasons span of varsity competition, Hibner spent only three seasons with the “A” team and shot with better than 40 percent accuracy from long range – an outstanding rate – for her career.
With defensive tenacity and effectiveness as a complement to her perimeter shooting skill, Hibner earlier this month was able to accept a scholarship offer from nearby North Central Missouri College at Trenton to continue her playing career at the next level while continuing her education.
“I am really excited to see what Jordan can accomplish at the next level,” Smith commented at the time of her signing June 11. “She will work hard to be successful and help her team be successful.”
“Jordan is just an outstanding pure shooter. She worked really hard to get her shot off faster throughout her career,” observed the CHS coach. “… I think Jordan has the athleticism to guard at the next level. She has great quickness, defensive intensity, and is smart, so she knows how to use angles to her advantage.”
While Hibner definitely was setting or resetting the two shooting records, classmate Hunter Keithley was producing an all-around performance which might also be unprecedented in CHS girls’ basketball history, although official statistics to confirm it are not readily available.
When the versatile forward-guard officially earned three assists in the final loss to Macon, it pushed her season total for that statistic to exactly 100, completing what might be the first season “quadruple-triple” by a Lady Hornet.
Not only did she unselfishly help teammates score dozens and dozens of times during her senior campaign, she also was just as accomplished at being the “finisher” on scoring plays, whether from the floor or foul line.
In addition to her 100 “dimes,” the 5’10” player rang up 102 field goals of her own – 29 of them from outside the arc – and drained 125 free throws at an excellent 80 percent rate. However, she wasn’t just about shooting or passing.
To round out her stats line in her final prep season, Keithley was the team’s second-leading rebounder overall – 10 behind leader Brooke Horton – with 122.
As best as could be researched by the C-T, that triple-digits quantity of diversified contributions – 100 or more made field goals and free throws, rebounds, and assists – has never been produced by any individual Lady Hornet in one season previously.
She also produced a remarkable performance and possible team record in the Jan. 13 win over Platte County in the opening round of the Kearney Invitational Tournament. She converted 17 of 19 free throws that day, a performance which might be single-game bests for total made, total attempted, and success percentage for a player with more than 10 attempts.
Considering she reached and surpassed 1,000 career points scored in the second-to-last regular-season game, Keithley undeniably had the shooting and scoring skill to feel like that should be where she concentrated her efforts, but instead she routinely sublimated that part of her game and the personal acclaim scoring more would have brought her in an effort to help her teammates be more involved and team be more successful.
While going the “all-around contributor” route might have made Keithley less noticeable to many fans and casual observers, her coach was not fooled about what she had meant to the team’s success. At Smith’s behest and with his support, Keithley was voted to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association’s (MBCA) 20-members Class 3 All-State team.
“I thought Hunter had a fantastic year,” the CHS coach said at the time of the All-State announcement.
“She could impact a game in so many ways even without scoring. I also thought, when we needed her to, in big games she would take on a more-aggressive (scoring) role, such as the (St. Joseph) Benton game when she had 21 (points) and at St. Pius she had 20.
“She was a great leader and mentor for the younger girls also.”
The senior duo of Keithley and Hibner also reaped first-team all-MEC laurels, as well as inclusion on the Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association’s and MBCA’s all-district teams.
Also gaining postseason recognition were Lady Hornets sophomore forward Essie Hicks and freshman point guard Jessica Reeter. Each gained honorable mention in the all-MEC balloting by league coaches – Hicks after averaging 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds a night and Je. Reeter after netting 7.3 points and earning 2.8 assists and nearly a steal a game.
While that duo undoubtedly will be key foundational pieces of the Lady Hornets squads for the next two and three years, respectively, they will have numerous experienced teammates with proven capability around them.
Due back for her senior year after pacing this past season’s squad in offensive and defensive rebounds is the 5’11” Horton, who showed significant improvement as a productive offensive player as the season went along. She finished with a 5.5 points scoring average and had a few double-digits points games, displaying an adept mid-range shooting touch that – if she can boost her “finishing” skill around the rim – could make her a matchup nightmare for opponents next season.
Meanwhile, guards Lucy Reeter and Selby Miller were top reserves who played important parts in the 2019-20 team’s success as 10th graders. Their speed and quickness were key elements in the team’s ability to pressure foes into turnovers, as well as help create transition scoring chances and each contributed as scorers on occasion, as well.
Senior guard Haley Kidd also was a dependable reserve and contributor to the pressure-defense capabilities of the squad when Smith strategized in that direction. A transfer to CHS from Trenton prior to her junior year. She added productive depth to the team, not only in the game setting, but also is raising the quality of the squad’s practice time.
Although sparingly used in games, seniors Josey Reeter and Montana Plattner helped spur the team’s development and successes through their presence on the practice floor and encouragement during games and in the locker room.
Multiple non-seniors beyond those already noted gained in playing experience on the junior-varsity level while chipping in on numerous occasions when the opportunity for varsity-game playing time arose.
Juniors Ella Leamer and Kaylee Munson and sophomores Ellie Barnett, Clara Leamer, and Sophia Luetticke all got into “A” games and, if they participate again in 2020-21, will be positioned to boost their playing time and contributions to another potentially-strong season.
All of the cited players received varsity letters – Luetticke’s and Munson’s being “provisional,” meaning they become full letters for 2019-20 if they letter in a subsequent year.
Smith said the entire group of 15 meshed well as a unit this past winter.
“This group of girls really played together as a team. They all got along well and played for each other. They were a fun bunch to be around,” he reflects. “Our seniors were great leaders and really showed the younger girls how to go about getting the work done.
“This was definitely a great group of girls.”
As for top season highlights beyond the conference and district titles, state competition, and record individual performances, the hoops Lady Hornets’ chief had a number which fit the bill.
“Beating Class 2 state champ East Buchanan by 10 on its floor, beating Maryville (while limiting All-State star Serena Sundell to only 11 points) by nine at home and Benton at their place in overtime to help set up the conference championship, getting down by 17 to Pius and coming back to have a chance to win, two wins vs. Trenton, beating a good Columbia: Hickman team by 16, and placing third in the Kearney tournament – all of these would be highlights,” Smith shares.
In statistical highlights beyond Hibner’s pair of 3-pointer marks and the Keithley “quadruple-triple,” the team’s composite 73 percent conversion rate at the free-throw stripe, according to program records researched and compiled by Randy Dean of KCHI Radio, was the second-best in Lady Hornets history behind the 76 percent shot by the 1997-98 team.
Also, Keithley and Horton each produced a points-rebounds “double-double” game during the season, coincidentally doing so in consecutive games during the Kearney tourney.
Keithley put up 22 points in the Platte County game in which she hit the 17 foul shots and also grabbed 12 rebounds – 10 of them off the offensive glass.
Two days later, in a 59-50 semifinals loss to Kansas City: Park Hill, Horton followed an 8-points, 10-caroms outing against Platte County with a personal season-high 16 points while yanking down 10 boards. She then posted eight points and eight rebounds in the third-place win over KC: Notre Dame de Sion, but surprisingly was snubbed in the all-tourney team voting despite tourney averages of 10.7 points and 9.3 rebounds.
The second-straight 20-8 campaign was the CHS girls’ fifth 20-wins season in Smith’s six at the helm. His 133-36 career ledger at Chillicothe leaves him second, all-time, in wins and winning percentage only to the late Rich Fairchild, who guided the Lady Hornets to a composite 142-29 mark from the 1991-92 season through 1996-97.
If, as anticipated, the 2020-21 Chillicothe squad posts at least 10 victories, when that 10th triumph arrives – most likely anywhere from mid-January to early February, it would make Smith No. 1 on the career wins list.