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Young, experienced, talented CHS basketball girls set for strong season

Despite graduation of All-State player and sniper, 2020-21 Lady Hornets should be formidable

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2020-21 Chillicothe High School basketball Lady Hornets varsity will inaugurate its new season Tuesday at Hamilton. Although both the program’s single-game, single-season, and career leader in 3-points baskets and an All-State player graduated from last year’s district champions, the Lady Hornets have solid prospects for a strong follow-up season to their Midland Empire Conference title-sharing 20-8 campaign of a year ago.
  • CHS girls were tri-champions of the Midland Empire Conference last year
  • Return three starters from 20-8 state-tourney qualifiers
  • Team will play only five home games. all versus tough foes. Also in Lawson tourney, not Kearney
  • Opponents include multiple with returning All-State players

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — If you were to ask a sports fan to offer an opinion on the season prospects of a high school basketball team which graduated a multi-faceted All-State player who was a 3-years starter and also the program’s single-game, season, and career leader in 3-points baskets and which has only one returning senior who played in at least half of the preceding 20-8 season’s games, chances are the reply reasonably would be that a much-poorer season likely was in store.

The 2020-21 Chillicothe High School Lady Hornets, due to debut at Hamilton Tuesday, fit that profile exactly, but might just have the mix of ingredients to belie such a justifiable prediction of their fortunes this season.

All of that, naturally, assumes no interference from COVID-19, which is a bet probably no one would take these days.

In head coach Darren Smith’s seventh season at the helm, this winter’s CHS girls’ squad brings an unusual combination of youth, experience, varied talents, and stature which should make it competitive every time it takes the court. If its eventual record doesn’t quite match up with its immediate predecessor’s, it might be more a result of an extremely-challenging, road-heavy schedule than any shortfall in performance.

On the Lady Hornets’ docket are a meager five home games – all against quality opponents, a Midland Empire Conference slate which includes squaring off with a multi-times All-State phenom who just officially signed to play Division I college hoops next year and the other team with which the CHS shared last year’s league crown, and a challenging series of non-conference foes headed by last year’s Class 2 state champions and a Class 3 state semifinalist.

Even playing at a very high level every time out won’t guarantee this year’s Lady Hornets won’t absorb just as many or more defeats as last season, but that wouldn’t mean they had a poorer season. And, given their youth, if multiple players grow their games from a year ago, it wouldn’t be outrageous that these Lady Hornets could surpass last year’s record and accomplishments, if the coronavirus gives them the chance.

“We bring a lot of experience back,” Smith affirms in preseason thoughts shared with the C-T earlier this week. “We are relatively young in age with only one senior, but eight of the girls are returning varsity members.

“I have also seen tremendous leadership from our players, not only for the girls their age, but also helping the younger girls.”

Personnel-wise, what this season’s team doesn’t have, initially, that last year’s did was the proven track record 2020 CHS graduates Hunter Keithley and Jordan Hibner brought into their senior seasons.

Keithley, an established threat as a scorer who could rebound and share the ball just as effectively, would finish her career with selection to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association’s Class 3 All-State squad. Hibner, who had set CHS’ game and season 3-pointers record as a junior, would reset the season mark and shatter the career standard for treys by a wide, wide margin before signing to play at North Central Missouri College.

None of this year’s returnees has the established credentials of those two, but, collectively, they might bring a superior breadth of abilities and physical characteristics which could make this season’s Lady Hornets a tough nut to crack, even for the best of foes.

The lone returning senior among last year’s primary player rotation, 5’11” center Brooke Horton, shows signs of having further developed her inside offensive game to go with the surprising deftness of mid-range shooting touch she displayed last season when she averaged 5.5 points.

She also has hinted at a more-aggressive rebounding mindset at the defensive end, even after pacing last year’s club with 4.7 boards per game on average.

Working as a complement to her as a potentially-lethal front-line tandem will be *** junior Essie Hicks. Lanky and deceptively quick with moves at the high post and along the baseline, she finished last season strong on offense, bringing her season average up to 7.2.

Around the perimeter, where Keithley and Hibner were the top markswomen a year ago, sophomore Jessica Reeter and junior Lucy Reeter provide ballhandling and dribble-driving skills which could be enhanced in effectiveness with another year’s experience and the attention the Hicks-Horton combo could draw around the paint.

J. Reeter started at point guard throughout her freshman year with L. Reeter, who had played extensively as a frosh herself, her primary backup.

Both shot 34% or higher from 3-points range, but will get their points through a mix of treys, transition layups, and drives and drive-produced free throws (each hit 70% or above at the line last year). If, with the additional experience and maturity they reduce their turnovers, they could be a troublesome outcourt force.

J. Reeter’s 7.3 points average was third-highest on the team and her 2.8 assists were second-best. 

Bringing the most additional experience beyond those four is junior guard Selby Miller, whose forte is her terrific defense. She handcuffed Maryville 6-foot guard Serena Sundell, last year’s Class 3 state player of the year and now signed with Kansas State, in the second half of CHS’ key home win that led to the MEC title share.

Miller showed some perimeter shooting ability as a 10th grader and is a solid ballhandler, too.

A trio of other juniors – Ellie Barnett, Clara Leamer, and Sophia Luetticke – gained some experience last year at forward and will provide some reserve depth there this season. The speedy Luetticke could be a sleeper, having missed her freshman year, due to a knee injury sustained at the end of her 2018 softball season. With another year’s healing and strengthening, she could be ready to elevate her game.

Several young newcomers also offer intriguing complementary possibilities.

Sophomores Bre Pithan and Kinlei Boley will add to the inside depth with a combination of height, strength, and rebounding instincts.

“Bre and Kinlei have done a great job of getting ready to fill in for Brooke when she needs a break or is in foul trouble. They have really improved their defense and rebounding,” observes Smith.

Classmate Cali Burkhardt has a good long-range shooting touch which Smith has indicated he might be able to utilize against zone-defending foes.

In addition, the coach says, freshman Jolie Bonderer “will play an important part this year. She understands the game and can play inside or out.”

As the season gets set to start, Smith tells the C-T, “I feel like our individual and team defense and rebounding will be our strength going into the season.”

As for facets needing to upgrade yet, he shares, “We have to get better offensively, especially the ‘3 ball.’ I think we will be able to run our offense, but we need to be patient enough to wait for the right shot.

Asked for any instances where the squad is advanced beyond what he’d projected entering the campaign, the long-time area coach mused, “From what I have seen so far, I would say it is the defense and rebounding.

“I thought we had the athletes to defend, but (doing) that is a mindset. I think the girls have bought into that and are doing really well in that aspect.

“We haven't been a real strong rebounding team in the past, but I think this group really gets how important it is. They are crashing the boards hard at this time.”

In terms in individual-player “surprises,” Smith acknowledges, “We have had a couple of girls step up and made us notice them that we didn't really expect.”

As previously referenced, the 2020-21 schedule won’t do the Lady Hornets hoopsters many favors.

Within the MEC, Sundell-led Maryville, with a supporting cast that should be even better this year with the experience it picked up last year, will look to avenge the loss CHS handed it on the Chillicothe floor last year. Meanwhile, Kansas City: St. Pius X, the other shareholder in last year’s league title by virtue of its home win over the Lady Hornets, has back three of its four all-MEC players from a 21-wins team.

Also not to be discounted are long-time conference stalwart St. Joseph: Benton, which Chillicothe shaded by only two points on the road, nor improved Cameron, which has All-State guard Laini Joseph returning.

Outside of the conference, the Lady Hornets will host three foes with returning All-State players.

All-State center Gracie Kelsey, whose mother is a CHS graduate from Chula and who has a number of local relatives and Class 2 state champ East Buchanan, which Chillicothe defeated on the EBHS court last January, will repay the visit this January.

Prior to that, Macon, which downed Chillicothe twice – including in the opening round of the state tournament before losing in the semifinals – and returns junior standout and All-State pick Lexie Miller, will follow neighboring rival Trenton and 2019-20 All-State forward Macy Moore to town in mid-December.

As for non-league road foes of note, the Lady Hornets will journey to Columbia to meet Class 5 Hickman, in addition to long-time regulars Kirksville and Marshall.

There is a change in both the Chillicothe girls’ and boys’ tournaments slate. While both remain in the early-season tourney at Savannah and the late-January event at Cameron, after many years, the girls won’t participate in the “Bulldog Classic” at Kearney in mid-January, but rather play in the Lawson Invitational. The boys also will go to Lawson in mid-January, rather than the St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond Holiday Classic between Christmas and New Year’s.

Given the announcement earlier this week of cancellation of the North Central Missouri College Foundation’s “Holiday Hoops” event, due to COVID-19 complications, there could be a possibility CHS director of athletics Dan Nagel and Smith will explore finding an additional game – likely preferably a home contest – to replace the one the Lady Hornets won’t play at NCMC.

As has been the case throughout his tenure in Chillicothe, Smith’s primary assistant coach is Terry McKiddy. Leading the freshman or “C” team for the first time will be former Lady Hornet Madison Busse, daughter of former Lady Hornets head coach Karen Jackson.