By CONOR NICHOLL
Sports In Kansas looks at least one team per classification, either a boy and/or girl squad that SIK expects to breakout this winter. Outside of one boy and one girl team, none of these are currently ranked. This is very similar to Potential Breakout Team feature that I’ve done for the last eight years in football over at KPreps.
This fall, the 20 Potential Breakout Teams in football collectively improved from winning 52 percent of games in 2020 to 72 percent this fall. Eighteen of the 20 teams improved its win total. That is in line with previous years.
This year’s basketball group has 16 teams (10 girls, six boys), covers all geographic regions and starts with Class 6A Olathe West girls:
Class 6A: Olathe West (15-6)
Last year, Olathe West finished 15-6 and went to the 6A final four, the best season in school history. OW lost/graduated its top-eight players. That included point guard Mackenzie Hart and guard Bailey Collar, the school’s first 1,000-point scorer.
They are at UMKC and Washburn basketball, respectively. Plus, junior Jordyn Wilson, an honorable mention all-league selection, committed to West Virginia soccer Oct. 4. She elected to not play basketball a few weeks before the season started.
Senior Kendall Starcevich was the lone returner with any experience.
However, Olathe West opened with a 2-1 showing and second-place finish at the season-opening Hays City Shoot-Out. OW defeated Hugoton, 48-31, and limited the Eagles to nine second half points. Plus, OW beat Thomas More Prep-Marian, 54-28. In the finals, OW lost to an Arkansas school. Hugoton was ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, TMP seventh in 3A.
“I think it was a surprise for most of us,” junior Keely Barnard said. “I feel like we are the underdogs this year, and even that first game, just coming out and winning, beating Hugoton was a great start for us, and it’s just going to keep us rolling, I hope.”
Coach Rick Rhoades has enjoyed a great career with turning around programs and getting the most out of his talent. This inexperienced Olathe West squad is likely another one that will surpass expectations.
“I have been to like five schools, six schools,” Rhoades told SIK. “And they have all started from scratch, or most of them have. And that’s where I really enjoy to bring them together, to work with them, and especially these girls. These girls, No. 1, they love each other, and No. 2, they listen. So if you have got those two things and a little bit of athleticism, then you are going to have success.”
“But that’s my thing,” he added. “I like starting over and bringing them where they didn’t think they could come.”
This year’s team features a deeply balanced group that has already formed quality team chemistry. OW formed the bond through the summer work, including the Pittsburg State camp.
“It’s a lot different than smaller towns,” Starcevich said. “Like some of us came from different middle schools. … Practice everyday, summer league, I think that’s where it really starts, and then if you come into the season already having the chemistry from the summer, I think that’s super big.”
There are four seniors: Alexis Newman, Starcevich (an all-state soccer player), Stevi Cochran and Rachel Hermreck. Rhoades noted Starcevich “held us together” and served as a great leader in the comeback win versus Hugoton. OW steadily wore down Hugoton.
“They are a well-coached team,” Hugoton coach Emmanuel Adigun told SIK. “Rhoades did a good job with his team, preparing them. I know they lost a lot of kids, and he is trying to develop, but that junior varsity team didn’t lose a game last year, so they had some players. They were just waiting their time, and I thought their kids did a terrific job of taking advantage of that opportunity.”
Barnard had a big Shoot-Out and is an emotional leader. She immediately started to high-five and celebrate with teammates after the Hugoton win.
“It was nice, first varsity game ever starting,” Barnard said. “It’s just fun to be a part of this team, and like being with my best friends on the court, making plays, it’s just exciting.”
“Everybody that played tonight, contributed,” Rhoades said after Hugoton. “It was a total team win.”
Junior post Kate Harter and freshman Emma Sales are starters. Barnard and Sales made the all-tournament team at the Shoot-Out.
“They were physical,” TMP coach Rose McFarland said. “They were a well-balanced team. They shot the ball well. They rebounded. They played really good defense against us. So I think he does a really good job, too. He did lose a lot of good players. He has got some good young ones. He’s got freshman that’s really good. They play hard. They get up and down the floor. I knew we had to get back in transition, and defensively, they got after it with us. We had a lot of turnovers. We didn’t handle the pressure very well.”
Rhoades has numerous accolades in more than 20 years of coaching. He coached at Blue Valley Southwest for 11 years and was at Shawnee Mission East for six.
In ’15 and ’19, he was 5A Kansas Girls Coach of the Year when he took Blue Valley Southwest to the state title game. In ’19, he was Sports In Kansas 5A Coach of the Year. He was a 6A SIK finalist for coach of the year the last two winters.
In ’19, OW went 7-12 in its second year of existence. In ’20, Rhoades led an eight-win improvement.
Olathe West won the Sunflower League crown in ’20 and a final four showing in ’21. He has seven overall trips to the state tournament.
Rhoades has accomplished success for many years. On Jan. 23, 2007, his SM East team beat Lawrence Free State, 50-39. That SME team had two seniors, one who barely played. FS has five seniors, all who started. SME was known for its pressure defense, few turnovers, hustle and fundamental play.
“On paper, Free State probably would have been the favorite,” the Lawrence Journal-World wrote.
For 2021-22, Rhoades said he has kept similar principles to past seasons. The current group knows the program, though just has not played varsity. Rhoades stays calm, and even kept an even-keeled nature when Hugoton raced out to an early nine-point margin. Barnard said Rhoades “always” preaches effort and attitude – “that’s all that matters for him,” she said – daily.
“It’s nice,” Barnard said. “You are not worried about making mistakes. You just know just to play, play hard and you will be fine.”
“We aren’t the tallest team,” Starcevich added. “We aren’t the fastest team. We are probably one of the youngest teams, so all we could make up for is attitude and effort.”
Rhoades was highly impressed with Sales this summer. Sales can play all five positions and is known for her high intelligence. After some early nerves against Hugoton, Sales calmed down. OW finished plus-18 on the glass versus Hugoton.
“She showed us in a hurry,” Rhoades said. “She has got tons of skill, and she is long. … She’s the real deal. She’s going to get nothing but better. That kid has got a high ceiling.”
Goddard girls (7-14 – record last year) – Goddard is off to a 3-0 start this winter. Senior Maycee James nearly put up a quadruple-double against Arkansas City. James has averaged 15.3 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and 8.7 steals per game.
Plus, freshman Marayah Coleman has delivered 8.7 points and four rebounds a contest. Sophomore Lauryn “Lolo” Gordon has 8.7 points and 2.7 rebounds. Goddard has a 46-28 win versus Augusta, a 45-44 victory against Wichita South, and 61-23 over Arkansas City. Last season, Goddard opened 3-0 as well before it lost six straight contests, though SIK expects the Lions to be significantly improved in 2021-22. James had a huge line last year when she delivered 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.9 steals and 3.7 assists a contest. Goddard returned 90 percent of its scoring.
Hays High Girls (6-15) – Hays High has opened 1-2 with a close loss to crosstown foe Thomas More Prep-Marian, a defeat to an out-of-state school and a win versus rival Great Bend. Last season, Hays High encountered 5A’s toughest schedule. When strength of schedule is factored in, the Indians posted a top-10 scoring defense. This winter, several signs are pointing up. Second-year coach Len Melvin has done a nice job with building team chemistry and continuity. Many of the key basketball girls had a nice jump in volleyball that led to a WAC title.
Senior post Aleyia Ruder, honorable mention all-state as a sophomore, is back after she missed a big chunk of last winter with injury. She, senior Jersey Johnson, along with juniors Carly Lang and Morgan Engel lead an experienced group. Plus, 6-2 sophomore post Jillyan Sheldon and freshman breakout candidate Molly Martin (double-digit points versus Great Bend) have played high level summer basketball. HHS has still posted scoring droughts this year, but the Indians are known for its scrappiness and toughness. A winning season is quite possible for this team.
St. James Academy boys (10-11) – The Thunder boys, under veteran coach Stan Dohm, are off to a 2-0 start this winter and are ranked No. 9 in 5A.
Last year, SJA started 0-3, though eventually beat Lawrence Free State and lost by six to Bishop Miege, the eventual dominant 4A state champions. St. James did graduate Michael Cahill (14.4 points per game), though the Thunder has multiple key players back. Senior Sam Somerhalder (6-foot-7, 175 pounds) and Cahill led the Thunder in scoring. Somerhalder has received looks from Division I Nebraska-Omaha, among others. Plus, experienced junior Brian Hawthorne is back.
Hawthorne’s sister, Faith, was a standout player for Bishop Miege/St. James. Senior Tyler Claiborne (6-3) and junior John Niesen are key players and star first team all-state wide receivers for St. James. The Thunder have won back-to-back state football championships. Sophomore Spencer Dohm is also expected to play a solid role for St. James.
Wellington girls (12-9) – Wellington has already earned a marquee win with its Tuesday victory versus 3A defending state champion Cheney. The Crusaders ended the Cardinals’ 37-game winning streak. Wellington is the only ranked girls’ team on this list at No. 8 in Class 4A. Wellington is 3-0 and defeated Mulvane (57-41), El Dorado (50-17) and Cheney (55-49). Wellington gets the Cheney final Saturday, and then a marquee matchup next Tuesday with Andale. Wellington has its standout seniors with Ali Zeka and Airalyn Frame, junior Kami Reichenberger and freshmen duo of Valerie Norwood and Bri Zeka.
Wellington ended last season on a buzzer-beater loss to Clearwater. Wellington coach Eric Adams has a 130-54 record. Frame has averaged 14 points a contest in the first three games. Class 4A is more wide-open compared to most seasons, and Wellington is a definite state contender, especially if it beats Andale. Wellington had lost four in a row versus Cheney dating back to 2016. The Crusaders have lost nine in a row to Andale, dating back to Feb. 10, 2017.
Independence boys (5-16) – Independence returns 6-foot-7 senior Easton Ewing, who delivered 18 points and 13 rebounds a contest. Indy has new coach Brad Smith, who led Labette County for many years and has 359 career wins. The Bulldogs have already opened 2-0 with a pair of quality wins: 57-51 versus Caney Valley and 46-44 against Mulvane, the latter game coming in the Circle tournament. Indy outscored Mulvane, 16-14, in the fourth quarter for the win. Indy held Mulvane to 35 percent shooting.
Smoky Valley girls (13-8) – SIK first mentioned the possibility of Smoky Valley girls’ basketball improvement this fall. SV has finished state runner-up and state final four the last two falls in volleyball. Several of the top players are strong in basketball. SV was sub-.500 every year from 2008-09 to 2019-20. Last season, the Vikings took a seven-win jump to 13-8. This year, SV has new coach Jason Drouillard. The Vikings have beaten Abilene (55-34) and Southeast of Saline (53-47). Six-foot senior Abby Rose is a former 3A state volleyball player of the year. Sophomore point guard Adrian Hazelwood is a standout player, and sophomore Keira Mullen is off to a nice start. SV has seniors Catherine Odell, Avery Vanderwege, Breanna Priddy and Gracie Lambert. This could be the best Smoky Valley squad in more than 15 years.
Silver Lake girls (13-11) – Coach Kyle Porter had his first year at Silver Lake last winter after a state championship at Royal Valley and one season at Hays High. Porter quietly led SL to the state tournament last winter after a 0-2 start. SL finished with four straight wins before a state quarterfinal loss to eventual state runner-up Sabetha. SL is highly experienced with four starters back: Mariah Farmer, Taylor Ross, McKinley Kruger and Makenzie McDonald. SL has opened 2-0 with a 48-41 win versus Jefferson West and 60-42 against Council Grove.
SL is currently unranked, though Porter is known for elevating programs and the Eagles are a 3A darkhorse.
Sabetha boys (3-18) – Sabetha defeated Marysville in the season opener, 60-50, and beat Wamego, 45-38, on Tuesday. Wamego is ranked eighth in 4A. Sabetha junior Nohl Niehues had a nice dunk versus Wamego. In both games, Sabetha pulled away in the second half. In the Marysville game, Sabetha led by one at halftime. Versus Wamego, Sabetha trailed by one. Sabetha made 7 of 13 (54 percent) from beyond the arc versus Marysville and received 18 points and four assists from Matthew Garber. Sabetha grinded out the Wamego victory and held the Red Raiders to 27 percent shooting. Davis Rokey had 14 points, and Christian McAfee finished with 12 rebounds.
Council Grove boys (4-9) – CG had a season torpedoed by COVID-19 last year and finished the season with three consecutive losses. This year, the Braves have opened 2-0 under coach Bruce Hula. Council Grove beat West Franklin (69-53) and Silver Lake (63-46). CG was 3-11 since 2011 against Silver Lake. CG has three talented seniors: Koen Hula, Hunter Brintle and Kellen Marshall. Hula has averaged 15 points, 10.5 rebounds, six assists and three steals a contest. Brintle has 14.5 points and 2.5 steals a game. Marshall has 20.5 points and five assists a contest.
Whitewater-Remington girls (3-14) – Remington has struggled for several years and has not posted more than seven wins in any of the last four winters. Remington enjoyed a big volleyball this fall and is expected to take a sizable jump after junior Kaleigh O’Brien transferred from Halstead. O’Brien is a terrific player who helped Halstead reach the state tournament each of the past two winters – the only two state tournaments in Halstead girls’ basketball history.
The Broncos have started 1-1 with a 66-37 win versus Bluestem and a 47-41 loss to Douglass. O’Brien tallied 30-plus points in the Bluestem win. Last season, Remington lost, 43-35, to Bluestem in the opener and opened 1-4. Remington had a shortened season last winter and didn’t play any games from Dec. 4 to Jan. 8. Remington has four seniors: 5-11 Lily Higenfeld, shooting guard Emily Wedel, point guard Marissa Hays and Ellie Van Zelfden. Remington was 23-16 in volleyball with O’Brien and Hilgenfeld its top hitters.
St. Marys (7-15) – Like Silver Lake, St. Marys is a Mid-East League team that should show improvement. Senior Katelyn Hurla is back after 13.5 points, four rebounds and two steals per game.
Minneola girls (7-12) – The Southern Plains Iroquois is among the state’s best small school conferences. The SPIAA always has excellent basketball. While South Gray has generally led the boys, the girls’ side always has many quality teams. Last season, Hodgeman County enjoyed the best year in school annals with a surprise final four run. Bucklin won the midseason tournament. South Central reached state. Spearville had an impressive year. Two seasons ago, Ingalls reached the state tournament, and Spearville was an undefeated Forever Four team. At least one team each year usually surprises. This winter, SIK picks two: Minneola and Ashland.
Minneola has not posted a winning record since 2010-11. The Wildcats have amassed a 57-140 record since then, per MaxPreps archives. Minneola has a real chance for its best season in at least a decade. Minneola returned 92 percent of its scoring, including 5-foot-11 junior Madi Denison. She delivered 16.9 points and two rebounds a contest. This year, Minneola has opened 2-0. Denison has averaged 24 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest. Sophomores Maiya Shelor and Aspen Haskell have combined for 16.5 points a contest. The Wildcats beat Cunningham (57-15) and Southwestern Heights (55-36) and gets a key test Thursday versus South Gray.
Atwood-Rawlins County boys (6-13) – The Buffs have new coach Nathan Ketzner and returns all five starters, including senior Jose Paz, senior Isaac Domsch, junior Brady Beckman and sophomore Brandon Chvatal. Rawlins County has opened with a 68-39 win versus Oberlin and the 62-33 victory against Natoma. Last year, Atwood did not exceed 48 points until Jan. 22. RC’s season high was 61 points last winter.
Ashland girls (13-8) – Last year, the Bluejays took a five-win jump from 8-12, Ashland’s first winning season. That ended a streak of six straight losing marks as Ben Fox and current coach Kit Walker have rebuilt the program. As SIK noted earlier this week, Ashland is 2-0, including a 44-32 season-opening win versus Bucklin. This marked the Bluejays’ first win versus Bucklin in 12 years.
Walker had coached middle school and high school basketball at Ashland and took over when daughter Mackenzie Walker came into high school. Ashland has three very good guards and two solid posts. Last year, Walker delivered 17.8 points, four rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.1 assists per contest. Victoria Milburn had 7.5 points and 8.6 rebounds a contest in ’19-20. This winter, Walker has 15 points, three rebounds and 2.5 steals a contest. Victoria has 14 points, 12.5 rebounds and four assists a contest. Freshman Jaya Milburn has 10 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Natoma boys (11-6) – Natoma had its first winning season since ’13-14 last year. The Tigers had a plus-six win improvement in the fall, won its first playoff games in 47 years and captured the six-man state championship. Natoma returned seniors Kayden Martinez, Tracen Frye and Derek George, who combined for more than 23 points a contest. All three were first team all-state football players. Coach Chris Broeckelman and assistant Tyler Masters have a strong bond. Natoma has started 0-2 with losses to Beloit St. John’s/Tipton (59-56) and Rawlins County (62-33), though is expected to do well in the Northern Plains League.