By CONOR NICHOLL
Hays High girls’ basketball coach Len Melvin faced Liberal senior duo Ashley Carrillo and Bree Horyna four times in the last two seasons. The last occasion for this winter came on Jan. 7. Liberal led by 20 entering the fourth quarter before Hays High made a comeback. Carrillo missed the last part of the game with leg cramps, and the Redskins held on for a 62-50 victory.
Hays High is known for defense, though Liberal had its typical high efficiency offensive performance. The Redskins shot 44 percent from the field and made eight treys. Horyna finished with a career-high 24 points and 10 rebounds. In the postgame handshake line, Hays High assistant coach Seth Oakley mentioned Horyna’s strong shooting to her. It marked Horyna’s second double-double of her career. Carrillo delivered 11 points and five assists.
Horyna and Carrillo have played together since fourth grade, part of Liberal’s girls’ basketball tradition that starts at the grassroots level. Horyna has committed to powerhouse Hutchinson Community College, Carrillo to NCAA Division I Presbyterian, located in South Carolina. Former Liberal coach Carter Kruger’s sister is a Presbyterian assistant. They had recruited Carrillo for a long time.
“I think our chemistry makes us really strong,” Horyna said. “We have played together forever, and we all just know each other so well, and our team chemistry and connection, and our athleticism makes us a really strong team.”
Currently, Hays High is 5-1 in its six games against Kansas teams that are not Liberal. HHS has permitted 35.7 points per game in those contests.
In two meetings against Liberal, Hays High has allowed 62 points each time. Last season, Hays High gave up 54 to Liberal, tied for the Indians’ third-most allowed in a winter that featured statistically 5A’s hardest strength of schedule.
“They are just phenomenal players, and there’s not many teams I hope that can shoot the ball like them on our schedule left,” Melvin said. “Because they are hard to guard if you come out and guard them, they are good enough to go by you, and if you don’t come out and guard them, and help out, they are going to bust a 3.”
In addition to the senior duo, Liberal has strong complementary pieces in juniors Hallie West, Rylie Hallman, Jenna Ormiston and Lizzy Cisneros, and sophomores Keyona Hall, Elle Hatcher and Hailey Contreras. Liberal is 109-14 since the start of 2016-17 with a final four showing and an undefeated forever four team, per MaxPreps archives.
This winter, the Redskins are 7-1 and ranked eighth in Class 6A. While Liberal has enjoyed six straight elite teams, this version is statistically the best, especially in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, shooting and steal rate.
“This one definitely brings a lot of energy,” Liberal coach Brandi Fowler said. “They have a lot of fun together. You will see them dancing all the time, so they have fun off the court. But on the court, they just work really hard. They are very tenacious, and they love to play defense.”
This season, Carrillo has delivered 16.8 points per game to pace Liberal. Horyna leads with 6.5 rebounds, four assists and 3.3 steals a contest, along with 11.9 points a contest. Additionally, Carrillo is the all-time goal scorer in Liberal soccer history. She was WAC soccer player of the year. Horyna earned the same honor this fall in volleyball.
Contreras is an excellent shooter with 11.4 points a contest. She is 22 of 59 for 37 percent from 3-point range, all team bests. She is eighth in Kansas in treys made, per MaxPreps.
“Those two players are the catalyst of that team, and they have got a lot of good young players coming up, so they are going to be good for years to come,” Melvin said. “But those two are special players, that if you get your hands on kids like that for four years, you are going to develop a lot of wins around something like that.”
This week, Liberal will travel to the Salina Invitational and will face Salina South in the first round at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
“This is by far one of the best teams I have played for,” Carrillo said. “We all want the same thing. We all know each other really well.”
Last season, Liberal defeated Salina Central, 60-58, on a last-second shot. This year, SC is 8-0 and ranked second in 5A behind its Division I duo of Aubrie Kierscht and Hampton Williams and standout point guard Mykayla Cunningham.
SC is one of the few teams with stronger offensive numbers than Liberal. Kierscht, probably Kansas’ best shooter, has averaged 23 points a game. She tied the single game Kansas record with 12 treys earlier this month.
They are favored to meet in the final. Central paces Kansas in 3-point field goal percentage at 43 percent, and Liberal is second at 36 percent, per MaxPreps. Currently, Central is well ahead of the state record for 3-point percentage of 40.2 percent set by Frontenac in ’02.
Liberal bumped up two spots in this week’s Kansas Basketball Coaches Association rankings after its big Western Athletic Conference win against Dodge City, 49-47, last Friday. DC is ranked ninth in 6A. Last year, Liberal finished 17-5 overall, 0-3 against the Red Demons, including a sub-state championship game loss.
This season, the Redskins have only a 45-38 loss to Olathe North on Dec. 10. ON is currently 9-0 and ranked second in 6A. All five of the Eagles’ starters have signed at Division II or higher. In December, Olathe North coach Alonzo Williams told SIK he was impressed with Liberal, especially the seniors.
“It was really exciting for us,” Fowler said. “We’ve had that one marked on our calendars for a long time, and so we knew that they were a quality opponent, and you never really know how good you are until the season starts. And then, when you start going against opponents, we really want to play the best in the state.
“We want to be one of the best, we’ve got to play that kind of competition, so I was really impressed with how the girls rose to the occasion, and they stepped up to the competition,” she added. “They really played hard that night, like they always do.”
The roots for Liberal’s success started in the youth ranks. Bree’s older sister, Katie, is currently playing for Division I Abilene Christian basketball. Katie and teammate Machia Mullens were co-SIK 6A Players of the Year as seniors. Katie’s senior group started in the third grade.
Carrillo and Bree started together in the fourth grade on a third/fourth grade squad. Six of the original nine third/fourth grade girls are still on varsity: Carrillo, Horyna, Ormiston, West, Hallman and junior Rachelle Terrazas.
Carrillo and Horyna have played high level summer basketball together, too. Horyna wore a constant smile throughout the Hays High contest. Even in pregame huddle, she engaged in an elaborate chest bump routine with Hatcher. Horyna called the routine a “tradition” and helps “make sure each other’s nerves are calm.”
“I have had so much fun,” Horyna said. “This group of girls is the absolute best. We always have an amazing time at practice no matter what we are doing, and it’s just been a blast to play basketball this year.”
This season, Liberal has delivered 60.5 possessions per game for 1.03 points per possession and 0.55 points allowed a possession.
“Everybody can shoot, it’s hard to guard us,” Carrillo said.
Plus, Liberal has delivered steals on 26 percent of possessions. All four of these are the best numbers for the Redskins in the last six years. Particularly the steal rate is much higher than the last five years.
“Typically, it’s our defensive presence,” Fowler said. “We usually have a really good lock down defense. We like to rush teams, and then a lot of times if we just have really good ball movement, we make sure the open person gets the ball.”
Horyna has 26 steals, one more than Carrillo and two ahead of Contreras. Plus, Hallman and Hall each have 15 steals. West has stepped up with four points a contest. Hall and West played limited to no varsity last winter.
“They worked super hard this summer,” Fowler said. “They are both really good basketball players. Key(ona) is a super good defender. She can be on the ball defensively, and Hallie just finds a way to get rebounds, and mix it up inside, and can score. So she can shoot the ball, too. They are just really good additions to our program.”
Last season, Horyna delivered 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds a contest. She averaged 6.9 shots per contest and finished 15 of 39 from 3-point range.
This winter, Horyna is up to 8.3 shot attempts a contest. She is highly efficient 15 of 25 from beyond the arc. Fowler has stressed to Horyna to “just score.”
“We don’t care how you do it, you are a senior now,” Fowler said. “You need to make an impact.”
“I have always been kind of a passive person, but now I can look to score and look to pass, just doing what is best for the team,” Horyna added.
Additionally, Liberal has sunk 36.4 percent of treys, which is easily the program’s best mark in the last six seasons. The Redskins have made 7.4 from beyond the arc per contest in ’21-22. That is slightly behind last season’s 7.5 game for the best in the last six winters. As well, Liberal has taken 41 percent of its shots from 3, also the second-highest.
“We know each other’s skills,” Carrillo said. “We have shooters, we have people that can dribble. … We back each other up a lot. We know each other, and I think that’s what’s been a huge part of our success this year.”