Basketball in Kansas: “It’s a lot of fun” – How The Last Dance and Vitamins have shaped the first month for senior-laden teams – and could yield history in 2022


Olathe North is a senior-laden team off to a big start in ’21-22. ON is one of several senior-laden teams that look to have the best season in program history this winter.

The Olathe North girls’ basketball team had little success until former coach Liz Monahan paced the Eagles to an 11-10 mark in 2016-17. That marked the program’s first winning season in 12 years. Then, Monahan went to Barstow, located in the Kansas City, Mo.

Alonzo Williams took over the program. Williams is highly known in the KC area for training girls’ basketball players. His two sons were Olathe North standouts. Known for his booming preacher-esque voice and charismatic personality, Williams has significantly raised the Olathe North program.

Williams still remembers his first games as head coach. Olathe North went to the Hays City Shoot-Out and took big losses to 5A Hays High and 3A Thomas More Prep-Marian. ON finished 5-16. The next season, Williams enjoyed an 11-win improvement, 16-6 record and the program’s first state appearance since 1997. ON had four freshmen: point guard Saniya Simmons, guard Sania Copeland, forward Ashlyn Alloway and center Yiibari Nwidadah.

Copeland was an honorable mention all-conference player. Copeland and Alloway were picked as two of the Sunflower League’s top five freshmen, per Sunflower Smack, a media entity that regular covers the conference.

As well, Lele Love picked up first team all-league as a junior, and Le’Yanna McGinnis was second team her senior season. Love eventually signed with Georgia Tech, and McGinnis is currently the leading scorer for Lincoln (Mo.) University, a MIAA school.

In the last two years, Olathe North is a combined 34-14 and lost in the 6A state quarterfinals both winters. As sophomores, Copeland was first team all-league, Simmons, Alloway and Nwidadah were honorable mention. Last season, Copeland was first team all-conference, Simmons second, while Alloway and Nwidadah picked up third.

“The No. 1 thing we stress, and we stress from Day 1 is pace,” Williams told SIK. “Pace, pace, pace. If we practice at a slow pace or we practice at a dragging pace, and not game pace, not game speed, it’s going to be hard to translate that into the game situation, so that’s a big part of our skill development as well. Everything we do, we want to do with pace.”

This winter, Olathe North picked up senior post Micah Landry, from Blue Springs (Mo.). All five seniors have signed for at least Division II or higher. Copeland is headed to Division I Missouri State, Nwidadah to Washburn.

“Some of our practices are more intense than some of our games, and I think it just started there,” Williams said.

In a highly rare move for three players from the same school, Alloway, Simmons and Landry are going to Lincoln. They all carry high GPAs, including 4.4 weighted for Nwidadah and 4.2 for Copeland. North has made connections in the community and had boosted numbers. North has more than 40 girls in the program.

“They are best friends, all five of them really are,” Williams said. “I mean, our whole team, they are so close. But they are all so different. They all have different personalities.”

Copeland is around 70 points from 1,000 in her career. Nwidadah is closing in on 600 career rebounds and 150 blocks. Simmons has 150-plus career steals. She set the school single mark with 96 as a sophomore and will hold the career steals record. Alloway should approach a unique trifecta: 500 points, 500 rebounds, 250 assists.

“They trust each other,” Williams said. “They trust the process, they get along, and it’s very rare for your five seniors to all be signed, and then they all play that position that they are going to play in college. You’ve got the legit point guard. You have got the shooter. You have got the wing. You have got the power forward, and then you have the 5. They gel together. There’s such a tight-knit five.”

Olathe North completed its pre-Christmas schedule with a 4-0 record and has a statistical per-possession profile nearly identical to 2020-21 St. Thomas Aquinas, the 5A state champion.

That includes a 45-38 road victory at Liberal on Dec. 19 in part of the Clarion Roundball Classic. ON made the 387-mile one-way trip to play Liberal at the “Big House.” Liberal is 52-3 in its last 55 home games, per Western Athletic Conference media.

Olathe North is ranked fourth in Class 6A. Williams was highly impressed with Liberal (4-1), which features seniors Ashley Carrillo and Bree Horyna, both highly decorated multi-sport players. Carrillo has signed with Division I Presbyterian, Horyna with Hutchinson Community College basketball. Liberal played zone. The Lady Red have dominated its other four opponents this winter. Williams believed his squad showed grit, and toughness in the Liberal win.

“I have been with this group now since they were freshmen,” Williams said. “And to see this group their freshman year would come into Liberal, and man, we would force stuff. I guarantee you it would just be like, we wouldn’t get ourselves settled, but (against Liberal), they just showed poise, and they took their time, and they settled in, and we got what we wanted at times.”

“This could be that year” – Senior-laden teams shape December; and look for school history in 2022

Jordan Dale has enjoyed a huge career for Hays High. He is part of an eight-player HHS senior class. (Photo credit: Jaycee Dale)

The Olathe North seniors are part of a unique group of teams that shaped the first three weeks of the Kansas high school basketball season – and could do so once play resumes in January.

Olathe North, 5A Hays High boys, 2A Uniontown girls, 2A WaKeeney-Trego boys, 1A-I Ness City boys and Pretty Prairie girls, and 1A-II Golden Plains girls all share similar traits.

They are all extremely senior-laden teams, most with at least one exceptional talent that should challenge for player of the year in a respective classification – ON’s Copeland, Hays High’s Jace Linenberger/Carson Kieffer, Uniontown’s Danielle Howard, Trego’s Charlie Russell, Ness City’s Taylor Cable, Pretty Prairie’s McKenna Vogl and Golden Plains’ Kassie Miller.

This season, ON, Uniontown, Trego, Pretty Prairie and Golden Plains all completed December undefeated. Hays High has one loss, an overtime defeat to Lawrence Free State, ranked No. 1 in Class 6A and generally considered Kansas’ best boys’ squad.

Notably in December, Olathe North won the Clarion tournament, Uniontown earned the Humboldt crown, Trego won its own Purple and Gold, and Golden Plains captured the Sagebrush in Brewster.

All the teams were above-average to excellent squads last season, though none made a state final. Ness City and Golden Plains were final four teams.

These squads have combined for two all-time state championships since 1980: Trego in 2006 and Ness City in 2019.

Most of these teams are ranked, though none is currently a state favorite. Uniontown and Ness City are unranked.

“We try not to talk about it so much, but this could be that year,” Williams said. “A special group of seniors who worked hard, and they are hungry. … You can see it. They just know what it takes, and then you have got a couple of kids coming off the bench that’s going to give them some breaks.”

In addition to Cable, Ness City has 6-6 Corbin Ross, veteran guard Jose Guzman, Jackson Seib, Casen Marshall, Gavin Schreiber, Dawson Stoecklein and Corbin Ross as seniors.

Both Hays High and Ness City have eight seniors, which is extremely high for a basketball team.

“I have taken a few things for granted just knowing that they have (experience), and I have got to get back to the basics, because I think they know things, but when I call it in a game, some of them don’t, so we have got to get everybody on the same page, and I have to do a better job in practice of that,” NC coach Brandt Rogers told SIK this month.

Pretty Prairie is currently ranked second in 1A-I, and Golden Plains is fourth in 1A-II. Hays High is ninth in 5A, Trego ninth in 2A.

“The biggest thing is just how fun of a group they are to be around,” HHS coach Alex Hutchins said. “They like each other, and they like basketball a lot, so it makes practice fun every day. It makes the games fun. They are fun kids. They are nice kids. It’s a joy to coach them. The challenge in coaching that is I have got a lot of kids that have worked really hard, and put in time and deserve to be out on the court, and I can only play five people at a time.”

Olathe North girls are 2-11 all-time in state games, per Kansas historian Carol Swenson. Both of those wins came in 1997, the best season in school history.

The Sunflower League is loaded this winter. Shawnee Mission Northwest is the reigning 6A champion and has the longest current girls’ winning streak in Kansas. SM West has S’Mya Nichols, who trains with Williams, has multiple Power 5 offers and is the state’s top junior.

“I told them, ‘It doesn’t matter if you are undefeated during the season,’” Williams said. “I want to be undefeated in March.”

Uniontown has two all-time state appearances, in ’92 and ’03. Trego has not reached state in 12 years.

“Since like the rec days, we were always talking about, ‘senior year, senior year, it’s going to be a blast,’” Trego senior point guard Cole Feldt told SIK this month. “And it’s crazy to think it’s already here, but we are going to make the best of it, and see if we can make a state run.”

Some of the senior groups, like Hays High, have been friends since younger days. Feldt and Russell are cousins. Russell moved to WaKeeney in eighth grade. They had played together in the summer.

“We have kind of still had that connection just not during school ball, and so it’s just been a blast to finally live it out,” Feldt said. “I never thought I would actually get to play with my cousin senior year, but it’s worked out, so I am loving it.”

Pretty Prairie has not made state since 2000. PP is 5-0 and won every game by at 27 points, including a 48-point win versus a solid Ellinwood team. The Bulldogs were 18-4 last season with three of four losses to Cunningham and Norwich, both league rivals who were eventual state runner-ups. This fall, many of the key basketball players helped Pretty Prairie to a state runner-up volleyball showing.

The seniors include Abby White, Aubrey Young, Grace Webster and the two stars, Jorah Harbaugh and the 5-foot-11 Vogl, who has several NAIA offers. Harbaugh has 17.4 points, five assists and 4.2 steals a game. Vogl, featured on SIK last year, averages 17.2 points and 9.8 rebounds.

“We have got several girls that are very fast and athletic,” PP coach Scott Goering told SIK last winter.

Golden Plains has 28th-year coach Parker Christensen. GP has the state’s longest current regular season winning streak and is 74-3 since the start of 2018-19, per MaxPreps. Golden Plains has a dominant 5-0 start with all wins by at least 15 points. Its senior group includes: Miller, Lauren Patmon, Amie Cheney, Rayna Taylor, 5-10 Carli Nieman and Morgan Wark. Miller is a three-year starter.

Hays High has been Forever Four and state quarterfinals the last two seasons with Hutchins. HHS has 21 all-time state appearances, though six final fours, and two in the last 21 seasons.

Hays High’s seniors are Linenberger and Kieffer, both returning all-state selections. Plus, senior Jordan Dale is a three-sport standout and has a Fort Hays track offer. Senior 6-3 Wesley Oakley has a college basketball offer. Senior Garrett Wellbrock has signed with Fort Hays baseball after an all-state season last spring.

Noah Weimer is a key player, while Ashton Hernandez and Nate Brooks are also seniors. Linenberger is at 17.2 points and nine rebounds a contest. Kieffer has 10.2 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds a game. Oakley and Dale have nearly identical lines with six points, four rebounds and two steals a contest. Weimer has 6.2 points and two assists a game. Noah’s younger brother, Jack, is a sophomore reserve.

“This group of guys, we have all been playing together, us seniors since third grade,” Noah told SIK. “This is our last year, going out there for the last time, it’s a lot of fun. Yes, we are all just one big friend group. We hang out all the time. We give each other (static) all the time, so it’s a lot of fun.”

Hays High (4-1) has played a quicker pace and delivered a stronger per-possession defense than last season’s 22-1 season.

“Be aggressive on defense,” Weimer said. “Be in the gaps, and if it’s there, go after it.”

“The Last Dance” for Howard, Uniontown

Uniontown has “The Last Dance” theme for this year’s senior-laden group.

Danielle Howard came to Uniontown in eighth grade after she grew up in Rosalia, where her older sister, Alyssa, was a star athlete at Flinthills. She helped the Mustangs to a volleyball state final four in ’16 and earned a Kansas Basketball Coaches Association scholarship in 2017.

The Howard sisters often played basketball on the family driveway hoop. Alyssa went to Tabor College for basketball. She is currently an Emporia State student, Emporia High assistant coach and Wheat State Elite summer basketball coach.

“I have always looked up to my sister,” Danielle said. “I loved going to watch her play. She was a senior my seventh-grade year, and her game days were my favorite days. She was just an amazing player.”

Their dad, Bret, is a longtime coach and administrator and currently serves as Uniontown’s superintendent. At first, Danielle was “not wanting to move at all.” Danielle quickly grew to her new town.

“I love it here,” Danielle said.

Danielle and her new Uniontown teammates won the league title as eighth graders. Howard said the senior quartet of herself, Camryn Davis, Gwen Fry and Kaydra Woods has always bonded together off the court and are best friends. Woods is a versatile player, Fry a key post.

They have a game/food night before the season starts and work on homework together. The Eagles have a white elephant Christmas party and normally watch a movie at some point during the season, too.

In Howard’s eyes, the bond has “translated super well” to basketball success. Plus, Howard has greatly appreciated veteran Uniontown coach Dustin Miller.

“One of the best people I know,” Howard said. “He truly helped me develop on and off the court.”

On Dec. 9, Howard became the fourth Uniontown player to clear 1,000 career points, and Miller won his 100th career game. Uniontown captured the Humboldt tournament. The Eagles are 2-0 against Erie and Humboldt, teams they were a collective 1-2 against last year. Uniontown goes into Christmas Break 3-0 after its regularly scheduled game with Erie on Friday moved to January.

This year, Uniontown has picked “The Last Dance” for the team’s theme and its four seniors, all key players. Howard was a SIK 2A player of the year finalist. Uniontown is 35-10 since the start of Howard’s sophomore year.

“My team gets along so well,” Howard said. “My high school experience has been super lucky, and we have never really had any problems on the team.”

Howard is a “big fan” of the well-publicized 10-part ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” on Michael Jordan’s career. The team talked about the theme and really liked “The Last Dance” after last season’s 16-4 squad.

“We knew that with the group we have, we have a really good chance of just picking up where we left off last year and having a really successful season again,” Howard said.

The Eagles are looking for historical benchmarks: Three Rivers League title, midseason title at Uniontown’s Kenny Holt tournament, a state appearance and likely a rare win versus Pittsburg Colgan. Uniontown and Colgan are again in the same sub-state. Uniontown is 0-10 versus Colgan, the defending 2A runner-up, in the last 15 years.

“That’s definitely one of our motivations at the beginning of the year,” Howard said. “Our coach tells us, we always know we are going to have them in our sub-state at the end of the year, because we need to work all season to get better and at least have a pretty fighting chance.”

“For most of the teams in our area, playing Colgan is a mind game,” she added. “They are such a talented team with many great athletes, and they are very well-coached. So the name Colgan scares a lot of people, but we try to just take it day by day, get better every single day, so at the end of the season, hopefully that is who we can face.”

Howard’s mom, Cristy, does a lot of the Uniontown girls’ basketball team’s Twitter feeds and designs. Danielle has committed to NAIA Peru State (Neb.), located 47 miles north of Sabetha. Howard likes math and algebra. She wants to major in actuary science and be an insurance analyst. Uniontown measures an A at 95 percent, and Howard has a 3.9 GPA, including 4.0 this semester.

“This senior group, we have been pretty well-known athletes around our school for a really long time, so that just seemed really fitting for my group that I am in,” she said of The Last Dance. “I just really like how much hate (Jordan) got, and how much people talked about him, but he just worked hard no matter what. I mean, I have been getting that a decent amount this year, committing to Peru State put a pretty big target on my back for this area, not many people move on to play college, but you’ve just got to keep working anyways.”

Howard already holds the career steals record and single season field goal shooting at 56 percent last winter. She, Shalina Harper, Trisha Eldridge and last year’s senior, Karleigh Schoenberger, are the lone Uniontown players to clear 1,000 points. Compared to last year, Howard believes the team is ready to play against junk defenses, along with man and zone.

Plus, freshman Reese Gorman has stepped in at point guard, which moved Howard off the ball, her normal spot in summer basketball. On Dec. 9, Uniontown earned its quality 47-27 win versus Erie. It marked the most points Uniontown has scored versus Erie in 11 meetings. Erie ran a box-and-1 versus Howard, but the other Uniontown players stepped up enough that the Red Devils eventually had to switch defenses.

“We really buckled down and got ready for anything, any team could throw at us,” Howard said. “And we have girls stepping up, and they knew they had to in different positions.”

The 5-foot-9 Howard was much shorter in sixth grade. At Flinthills, sixth graders can play middle school basketball against seventh and eighth graders. Howard understood that if she wanted to play on the varsity middle school team as a sixth grader, her ball handling skills needed to improve.

Howard talked to her dad. The two spent significant time in the gym to prepare herself for middle school and high school and put herself in the best position for colleges.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really appreciate basketball as much as my family all did, growing up in a basketball family,” Howard said. “I was always the kid who ran around during high school games and never sit and watch.

“But around seventh grade, I decided that basketball was something that I definitely had some skill in, and I think I have always just been a little more advanced than some basketball players,” she added. “I just was born with a lot of natural skill, and I knew that I could really go far if I buckled down and started working.”

Howard watches a lot of film, including game days. She likes to watch how different opponents play. She credited her teammates for their strong defense, too. Howard has always had pretty quick hands. Howard still remembers a game from her freshman year when Uniontown played Southeast-Cherokee, which had some great athletes.

Howard fought illness during the week. SE was heavily favored, and Uniontown lost, 64-61. SE had four seniors, including talented point guard Sailor Jackson. Howard stole the ball from the Jackson in the game. Howard finished with 19 points, seven steals and six rebounds. In the summer, Howard played with Next Level Eclipse in the Kansas City area for multiple summers.

Howard often made the 188-mile round trip to the KC area and was on the same team as Payton Verhulst (Louisville), Ella Anciaux (Wichita State), Madison Skelton (Emporia State) and Emajin McCallop (Alabama A&M), all Division I players/commits. Howard played with Wheat State Elite last summer.

“It wasn’t ever a short trip, but I knew that I needed to be playing summer basketball like that to help me get better,” Howard said. “Here in southeast Kansas, we don’t really have a travelling team like that, so it just something my family decided that we needed to do. It was a big dedication, but it was definitely worth it.”

The extra time and the senior class’ experience has helped elevate the program. As freshmen, the current Uniontown seniors helped with a seven-win improvement, and then a five-win jump as sophomores. Last year, Uniontown was undefeated in league play. This season, the senior class looks to take another step in “The Last Dance.”

“My freshman year, we were big underdogs,” Howard said. “We had to fight for absolutely everything, and playing in the summer, there is always someone better and faster and stronger than you, too. Just playing hard and playing as fast as I can, and doing everything that I can for my team, it’s just an exciting moment when you get the steal your team needs, or you take a charge that your team needs, it’s just a really rewarding moment – so if we can do that all game.

“… This season, I am just really looking to have fun with my teammates,” she added. “This is my last go around for high school basketball, and basketball has changed my life. So just being there for my teammates and picking up wins when we can is amazing.”

Olathe North’s Vitamins and coaching on the court

When Williams took over the program, he highly emphasized practice, especially since wins weren’t coming at a high rate. Like Howard, ON also improved in the summer.

“It’s going to be game-by-game, practice by practice,” Williams said. “But let’s start winning in practice. If we start winning in practice, it will make it easier for us to win in games.”

Olathe North still gives its practice plan the night before to the girls.

“Know exactly what they are getting into in practice the next day, so pace won’t be an issue,” Williams said.

Each practice, Olathe North focuses on passing and ballhandling drills.

“We call those Vitamins, because they are important, just like vitamins are important,” Williams said. “Just like vitamins are important to us every day. We do those drills for 10 minutes every day.”

Through four games this season, ON has averaged 1.02 points per possession, allowed .51 points per possession and turned the ball over 24.6 percent of the time. The Eagles have been a superb offensive rebounding team and picked up 48 percent of available offensive rebounds. ON has 49.8 possessions per game.

Last year, 5A St. Thomas Aquinas, with Skelton as its point guard, had 49.7 possessions per game, with 1.01 points per possession and allowing .67 points per possession. The Saints turned the ball over on 24 percent of possessions.

“We had some careless turnovers here and there, but I think those that watched us in (southwest Kansas) can say, ‘Olathe North values the ball,’ …. those Vitamins that we do every day have come into play,” Williams said.

Olathe North opened Sunflower League play with a 60-20 win versus Gardner-Edgerton on Friday. ON will play Grain Valley (Mo.) on Wednesday. On Jan. 4, North has its marquee game versus SM West (3-0).

Copeland has averaged 8.3 points, 4.3 assists and 2.5 steals a game. Alloway has a double-double with 10.5 points, 10 rebounds and 2.3 steals per contest. Landry has averaged nine rebounds a contest. Junior Tyriana Stanford has 10 points a contest.

The 5-foot-2 Simmons has five points, 4.5 steals, 3.8 assists a game and just three total turnovers all winter. Simmons and Alloway were part of the gold medal 400-meter relay last May at Class 6A state track. Last season, Simmons missed three games. ON lost all three and went from 63 points a game to 36.

This year, she has played with a full turf toe, a painful injury, though she hasn’t lost a step. Like the rest of her seniors, she has improved, especially with her shot. Simmons has piloted the veteran group.

“She knows my playbook better than I do,” Williams said. “There’s times in practice that us coaches are just standing, and she is directing traffic. She is letting them know. Her motor is relentless.”

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