Experience, versatility should key strong Lady Hornets hoops season

Returning four starters, CHS season opens at home Tuesday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Chillicothe High School's 2021-22 girls' basketball team, expected to have another strong season under head coach Darren Smith, left, and his staff, will debut at home Tuesday. This season's players are, from left: Front row – seniors Essie Hicks, Lucy Reeter, Ellie Barnett, and Clara Leamer; Middle row – Jessica Reeter, Jolie Bonderer, Delanie Kieffer; Back – Kayanna Cranmer, Bre Pithan, Izzie Montgomery, and Calie Burkhardt.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

A Chillicothe High School Lady Hornets basketball team brimming, but not quite overflowing, with returning talent for the 2021-22 season, as it might have been, is set to debut at home this coming Tuesday evening.

As has been almost commonplace since the games were first arranged about a decade ago, the originally-planned all-Hornets varsity doubleheader between CHS and western neighbor Hamilton has been converted to a 5:30 p.m. girls-only varsity/junior-varsity twinbill since Penney High’s boys’ basketball team has numerous players still involved with playing football through this weekend.

Chillicothe’s girls, coming off another strong season, in which they went 17-8, have four starters back – guards Jessica and Lucy Reeter and swing players Essie Hicks and Jolie  Bonderer, as well as multiple reserves who saw plenty of  playing time a year ago.

“We’re fairly seasoned,” eighth-year head coach Darren Smith understates.

That well of experienced talent would have been even deeper were it not for would-be senior guard Selby Miller’s family having moved away and junior post player Kinlei Boley opting to forgo the sport this winter. Depending on what approach Smith chose on a given night, one of those two likely would have been the fifth starter.

Even minus those two projected major contributors, Smith again has fashioned a strong hand to play, which is good, since the team’s schedule again is full of tough opponents, particularly when Midland Empire Conference play rolls around.

Senior forward Essie Hicks of the 2021-22 Chillicothe High School basketball Lady Hornets scores an uncontested basket during Tuesday's "jamboree" scrimmage in Chillicothe. She is one of four returning starters from last year's 17-8 squad.

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In the 5’9” Hicks, he has returning a versatile, 2020-21 all-MEC first-team talent able to score easily anywhere from three feet away to 3-points distance.

Called by Smith a “slasher” on the offensive end and “great on-ball and ‘help’ defender,” Hicks averaged 11.2 points per game with 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists as a junior which shooting 35% from outside the arc. She runs the floor well and the ability to score either off the dribble-drive or in catch-and-shoot manner.

If she can muster more consistency as a senior, she could be one of the region’s best all-around players.

Jessica Reeter was last year’s leading CHS scorer and distributor while playing point guard. The 5’5” junior knocked down 41% of her 3-point attempts last year, connecting 65 times (eight shy of the team record in a season), including a CHS single-game record eight times against Lathrop last Feb. 1.

With 106 treys through two seasons, she’s already fifth on the CHS career list and easily on a pace to, if healthy, pass current record-holder Jordan Hibner. With a shift to more time at shooting guard this season, relieving her of some of the fatiguing defensive load of a point guard, and a different offensive approach as a team, that could come either late this season or early in her senior year, if she remains healthy.

“We’ve put in a different offense that kind of leads to dribble penetration a little bit,” Smith disclosed in a visit with the C-T early this week.  “I really feel like that’s going to help us.

“… I’ve got great free-throw shooters. I’ve got good ballhandlers. We’ve got to attack the basket more and that’s something we’ve really been working on in practice is ‘attack, attack, attack.’”

By forcing more defenders to sag toward the lane to help cut off dribble-drives, the theory is, there’ll be more time and room for outside shooters after dishoffs.

“That’s going to make us more successful with the ‘3,’” predicts the coach.

Shifting back to the point guard position she played some as a freshman, but less of after her cousin’s arrival, Lucy Reeter will be able to exploit her speed and tenacity as a defensive disrupter and transition scoring threat, as well as a penetrator and spot shooter in the half-court offense. She led last year’s team with an average of 1.6 steals per game.

“Lucy is doing a great job of running the ‘1’ and taking care of the ball and getting it where it needs to go,” coach Smith says of the senior’s position change.

The youngest of the four returning starters, Bonderer also is the most versatile – able to play any of the five positions – and might have the best athleticism and competitive instincts.

At 5’8”, she is a voracious rebounder, using her athleticism and uncanny “read” of rim-bound shots to get into prime boarding position on both ends of the floor. As a result, she pulled down an team-high average of 6.2 rebounds as a freshman.

On top of that, she – like Hicks – has the capability of scoring at the rim, outside the arc, and any distance in between. She, in fact, was the team’s most accurate shooter as s frosh, connecting on 45% of all her tries, including a team-topping 45% from 3-points range.

“We’ve got so many kids that can do different things,” Smith says of the offensive versatility.

The one potential chink in that offensive armor is lack of a power-scoring threat, particularly if the opponent has a tall interior defender, that could assure more space for the slashing drivers and perimeter markswomen.

The top contenders for being the fifth starter are senior Ellie Barnett and junior Bre Pithan, the coach shared.

The two are different styles of players, which might lead to Smith trying to mix and match who he starts, depending on the opponent’s personnel and style.

Barnett, a 5’7” lefthander, is more experienced and mobile and scrappy. She also has the ability to hit open shots from 15-20 feet, but is limited in her effectiveness under the basket.

Pithan, at 5’10”, has the better height for post play and, like Bonderer, has a nice “sense” for rebounding, using her feet to maneuver to favorable position around the glass while a shot is still on its way to the rim. She lacks the mobility of Barnett and is still working on creating and hitting short-range shots.

Among those who almost exclusively will sub in, some to fill specific roles, will be senior forward Clara Leamer, junior guards Cali Burkhardt and Izzie Montgomery, and sophomore guards Kayanna Cranmer and Delanie Kieffer. Burkhardt might be the team’s best 3-points shooter when given an open look, Smith notes.

“Trying to settle on a ‘5’ (post player/fifth starter) right now,” Smith said after last Monday’s public, intrasquad scrimmage, “… and trying to settle on a rotation.”

Given the defensive intensity he wants from his squad, the coach says one area of personnel-management focus this year will be finding more rest for his top players through the first three quarters of games.

“We’ve just got to execute better offensively for 32 minutes,” the coach diagnoses. “Sometimes we run into lulls where we can’t score. We’ve got to get past that.”

That will involve both using more players and, thanks to their versatility, cycling some of the best ones through multiple positions.

“I’ve got to get kids more breaks more frequently, so that, in the fourth quarter, we’re a little fresher,” he reveals, having taken note of late-game struggles –  particularly on offense – in multiple games against top-drawer opponents last season.

“… When you play at that (effort/energy) level, … you’ve got to have that breather where you can just catch your breath, regroup, and get back out there.”

Speaking of high-caliber opponents, there again won’t be any shortage of those for the Lady Hornets, who strong overall record last year masked a 2-5 conference ledger.

With virtually no change in the team’s schedule from last year to this, even with a very good level of consistent performance, there’ll be no guarantee of victory most nights.

That will be the case right from the opening portion of the season when, after Tuesday’s opener against a likely-overmatched Hamilton club, the CHS girls compete in the Savannah Invitational Tournament the week after Thanksgiving.

With a 7-teams field that include more than half that were state-tournament qualifiers last season, Chillicothe will open that tourney against last season’s MEC champion Maryville Tuesday, Nov. 30. Even without graduated star Serena Sundell, the Lady Spoofhounds will present a significant challenge.

Once done in that tourney, the Lady Hornets’ slate will include likely-tough battles at home with Columbia: Hickman, St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond, Savannah, Kirksville and Cameron, as well as rugged road assignments at Macon, Kansas City: St. Pius X, East Buchanan, and St. Joseph: Benton, as well as in the Cameron tournament.

In handicapping the conference race, Smith says,  “Maryville’s going to be tough. …They’re going to be a team that’ll sneak up on some people who thought Serena was their only key.

“Benton will be good as always. LeBlond has a former Benton forward to join its shooters. Savannah always gives us trouble because it guards so well. Cameron graduated (top player Laini Joseph), but has couple of other good players back, and Pius is Pius. It always gives us fits.”

As the season tips off, beyond experience factor, Smith sees his team’s defensive potential as big a plus for his squad as its offensive versatility.

“Defensively, we’ll be fine,” he assesses. “We’re extremely scrappy. Active hands.

“… Overall, I really like where we’re at right now… as far as seeing each other and working together and defending together. … For two weeks in, it’s at a pretty high level.”

As for concerns, he comments, “Rebounding is always a source of angst for me. I just want one (opposition) shot (per possession).”

That concern over rebounding, along with her greater height, could help tip the scales toward Pithan on deciding the fifth starter.