By CONOR NICHOLL
Last football season, Sports In Kansas expanded its normal year-end awards to include: Lineman of the Year, Specialist of the Year, along with large and small school Assistant Coach of the Year. The new awards garnered a huge positive reception.
For basketball, SIK will have its normal player/coach of the year and all-state honors. Plus, SIK will have assistant coaches of the year – and defensive players of the year as new awards. This week, SIK looks at a midseason Watch List for top girl defensive players. This list is not ranked and includes players from multiple classes and regions. Players culled from SIK observations, statistics and communicating with more than 15 coaches, media members and observers.
1.Mayce Russell, Macksville – Steals
Megan Schroeder is a 2011 Macksville graduate. Five years ago, she took over the Mustang girls, a program that has long struggled. Schroeder knew she had talent in the seventh-grade class that featured Mayce Russell, Kambry Adams and Logan Sanders.
Russell’s older brother, Brigdon, was a senior on the ’16-17 Macksville team. He averaged 11 points per game and paced the Mustangs with 52 steals. Macksville boys are a perennial contender with coach Jeff Kuckelman. Mayce saw limited crowd support for the girls’ games.
Mayce has frequently worked with her brother on steals during scrimmages. Notably, Brigdon had a move where he would reach around the offensive player and poke the ball free. Mayce has picked up the move.
“I have just tried to do it ever since,” Mayce told SIK last Friday.
In ’20-21, Macksville finished 5-16. Last year, the Mustangs enjoyed a seven-win jump to 12-11, the most wins for the program in 18 years. Russell ranked among the state leaders with 5.1 steals a game. In the fall, she helped Macksville volleyball to a 25-10 mark, its most wins in more than a decade.
Russell plays both club volleyball and basketball. For basketball, Russell is on a Wheat State Elite team led by Brad Malm, from McPherson. Russell said Malm has “helped me a lot,” especially with handling pressure.
“He is really hard on us, because he knows what we are able to do,” Russell said.
This season, Macksville, in 1A-I, is 5-6 against a challenging slate. Three of the losses have come against Kansas teams with a combined record of 24-4. A fourth is versus a non-KSHSAA school. Last Friday, Macksville delivered a key 38-32 home win against Ellinwood and star Brittany Simpson, who just exceeded 1,000 career points. Macksville had lost four straight to Ellinwood, including last year’s game when the Mustangs led by 17 at halftime. Macksville was named an SIK Potential Breakout Team this winter.
“I have got to give credit to the girls,” Schroeder said. “But I have always been huge on rebounding and being physical and being tough, so it’s all them, they are athletes, and they want to get better and they work hard.”
Russell had a huge game with 18 points, 10 steals, three rebounds and three assists. Macksville consistently tried to trap and likes to press throughout the game.
Russell’s first steal came on a corner trap after an Ellinwood rebound. She helped Macksville jump out to a 13-3 lead. Russell poked several passes free and read multiple others, including one off a sideline inbounds play.
“She just understands where girls are wanting to go with the basketball, and she anticipates it, and she can wrap her arm around there and poke it out, but she does a really good job of anticipating, because of her basketball IQ,” Schroeder said.
The 5-foot-6 junior has tallied three games this season of at least 10 steals. Overall, she has 15 points, 6.3 steals and 4.3 assists per game, all team-bests. Adams has 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals.
“She probably puts in more work than anybody, so I am happy to see her succeed,” Schroeder said of Adams.
Senior Joselin Garcia has 2.3 steals. Sophomore Isabela Ortiz has delivered 2.7 steals a contest.
“Really my teammates help me out by playing their part, too, and really I just try to look at what I am doing before I do it, so I don’t foul, and then I just go for it, and God just helps me,” she said.
Russell has consistently ranked first or second for all classes in steals this winter. She is among the state leaders in assists, an improvement that greatly pleases Schroeder.
“Something that I have been talking to her about is passing the ball, and she has really embraced that,” Schroeder said. “… She really gets her teammates involved, and she is trusting them, and they give her a reason to trust her.”
Russell has noticed bigger crowds with her team’s improvement.
“Now it just really feels like the community is like ‘OK, they have got some potential here,’” Russell said.
2. Carly Lang, Hays High – On-ball
In the Hays City Shoot-Out on Dec. 2, Hays High matched up with Washburn Rural, the defending 6A state champion and then ranked No. 1 in 6A. Rural features its two elite players with junior point guard Zoe Canfield and senior post Brooklyn Deleye. Canfield has committed to Kansas, Deleye has signed with Kentucky volleyball.
“I don’t know if Zoe is the best player in the state right now, but I can guarantee it she is in the conversation,” Hays High third-year coach Len Melvin told SIK.
Canfield sunk two early treys. Then, Melvin put HHS senior Carly Lang, a four-year starter and one of the most experienced players in program history, on Canfield with face guarding. Lang is well-known for her energy and tenacious defense.
By game’s end, Lang felt like she had run a marathon. Hays High pulled off a marquee 37-33 victory versus the Junior Blues, a win that reverberated throughout Kansas.
“It gets really tiring, but…the end reward is so worth it,” Lang told SIK. “There is nothing better than your hard work paying off in the end. I just go hard for my teammates and for myself, because it’s super fun.”
Melvin called Lang’s defense “phenomenal” and that Hays High played “incredible” team defense.
“From Day 1, it was a message that our identity would be defense,” Melvin said. “We have to be a great defensive team.”
Helped by the performance against Canfield and her overall body of work, Lang is a serious candidate for the state’s top defensive player. Similar to Macksville’s Russell, Lang has helped turn Hays High around. HHS had back-to-back six win seasons before the jump to 13-9 last winter.
“I have seen good seasons, I have seen terrible seasons, I have been through it all,” Lang said.
Lang has guarded at least four Division I signees/prospects. She routinely draws the toughest assignment each night and consistently holds most stars under their season average. That included Canfield in the memorable win.
“I haven’t been this excited since freshman year my first games going in, like this is like a second wind,” Lang said after the victory. “I think this season is really going to be awesome.”
The Indians have been ranked part of the winter in 5A. Hays High is currently 6-3 heading into this weekend’s Orange and Black tournament in Colby. HHS is expected to play undefeated Goodland, the defending 3A champions, in a marquee game Friday. Goodland is ranked No. 1 in 3A and has won 23 straight, the second-longest current winning streak in Kansas girls’ basketball. Last year, Goodland beat Hays High, 57-55, in double overtime.
“We just try to impose our will,” Melvin said. “We don’t want any team to feel comfortable offensively against us, and that comes with risk right? You are going to overplay a passing lane or you are going to hedge a little harder, and so you are going to give up some frustrating buckets, but all we ask our kids to do is play as hard as you can, and as fundamentally sound as you can within the constraints of what we are trying to do, and we feel like that gives us a shot to win. Our goal is to hold teams under 40 points.”
Entering Thursday, Lang had played in 72 career games with 66 starts, per Indian broadcaster Dustin Armbruster. She is currently tied for No. 10 all-time in HHS history in games played. In her career, she has 98 steals, eight away from top-10 in school history. She is top-five in free throws made (156) and attempted (258). Lang has committed to Garden City CC volleyball.
She has helped HHS hold opponents to 40.6 points per game. Rural is currently ranked third in 6A and has scored 49 points a contest when not playing Hays High. Hays High held Arkansas power North Side to 39 points. North Side has averaged 57 in its other contests.
“We have lofty goals,” Melvin said. “We feel like this team can go do some things, but it’s a grind, too. We have a really difficult schedule. The WAC is going to be brutal this year with really good teams, and really good coaches. … We feel like this team can win – and win now.”
3. Ashlyn Gerten, Wellington – returning league defensive player of the year
Wellington, which has posted the state’s best statistical defense through the first half of the year, could have a variety of players up for this award. Senior guard Ashlyn Gerten was part of the SIK All-Underrated Team last season and eventually earned conference defensive player of the year.
Wellington is 10-0 and has permitted just 24.7 points per game. The Crusaders have not lost in the regular season since Feb. 12, 2021. This year, Wellington has wins against Cheney, Clearwater and Andale.
Those three teams averaged 35.3 points against Wellington’s press and athleticism. In all other games, those opponents are a combined 22-2 and have scored 53.4 points a contest.
Kami Reichenberger, Valerie Norwood, Britt Zeka and Kylan Gregory are among those playing well for Wellington, which has the state’s current longest regular season winning streak. Wellington is fourth in 4A.
Against Clearwater, Reichenberger and Gerten earned the team’s co-defensive player of the game. Wellington has excellent team speed and overall athleticism. In the fall, Gerten finished second in Wellington history with 32 tennis victories. Gerten and Reichenberger combined for 167 career wins in tennis. The duo ran on the state-medalist 400 relay last spring.
4. Polona Kalan, Pittsburg St. Mary’s Colgan – on-ball
Colgan girls are 9-0 and will be the huge favorite in the Erie sub-state. The Panthers are currently second in 2A with longtime coach Abby Farabi. Colgan went undefeated until state last season. The Panthers have not lost a regular season game since Feb. 19, 2021.
This year, Colgan again has its well-known tandem of Lily Brown and Lauren Torrance. Brown leads Kansas with 26 points a game, along with three steals and 2.5 assists. Torrance is at 16 points, while JaKayla Davis has 11 points a contest.
The Panthers have collected 22 defensive rebounds, 11 steals, 10 deflections and two blocks a contest. Farabi said Colgan’s best defensive player is Polona Kalan.
“She has really stepped up for us the last four or five games,” Farabi told SIK. “She makes it very challenging for their best guards to score. She gets after it and really has been a general for us defensively. Also, Delanie Meek has done a great job defensively. Lily is a great off-ball defender. She gets a lot of steals for us.”
5. Chloe Clevenger, McPherson – varsity player in five sports
SIK has featured McPherson senior guard Chloe Clevenger multiple times, but her career is remarkable. Clevenger spent her first two seasons at Doniphan West, and then transferred to McPherson where her dad Chad became the McPherson College cross country/track coach. Clevenger is all-state in cross country, track and basketball and is headed to Johnson County CC basketball. Clevenger has played varsity softball and baseball.
This season, McPherson is 9-1 and ranked second behind Bishop Miege in 4A. McPherson’s major performance came against Andover and its two high-level Division I talents with Brooke Walker and Alana Shetlar in a 65-41 win on Dec. 9.
Andover is 8-0 when not playing McPherson and has scored 55.8 points per game in wins. Clevenger and Karter Alvord held Walker and Shetlar to 16 points on 6 of 31 shooting in the victory.
McPherson has permitted 33.7 points per game. The Bullpups own wins against St. James Academy (69-61), Circle (48-22), Mulvane (60-30) and Andale (41-29).
6. Avery Lowe, Maize South – record-setting shot blocker
Among larger school players in the central and western half, three names continually emerged for defense: Lang, Clevenger, and Maize South’s 6-foot-3 senior post Avery Lowe, a University of Nebraska-Kearney basketball commit. Lowe is a well-known player in volleyball and basketball. Lowe was co-Defensive Player of the Year in AVCTL Division I last winter.
Lowe is Maize South’s season and career leader in blocks for both volleyball and basketball. Maize South is 6-3 with a win over Andover Central, currently No. 10 in 5A and generally one of Kansas’ most efficient offenses. The Mavericks have allowed just 33.9 points per game. In her last two contests, a pair of big wins against Campus and Goddard, Lowe has combined for 24 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks.
The 38 points is the only time AC has scored under 45 this year.
Versus Valley Center on Jan. 10, Lowe had 21 points and five blocks. She recorded 25 points, seven rebounds, four steals and four blocks in a 46-28 rivalry win versus Maize in mid-December. In the season opener, Lowe helped Maize South hold Andover Central to 36 percent shooting.
7. Kylie Disbrow, Anderson County – state’s leader in blocks
Anderson County junior Kylie Disbrow continues to put up big numbers. She averages 19.5 points, 12 rebounds and a team-high six blocks per game for Anderson County. Disbrow has delivered multiple triple-doubles for a 5-3 team. While AC has struggled against the top teams on its schedule, Disbrow has performed at a high level in losses to 4A’s Baldwin and Louisburg.
Versus Baldwin, she delivered 15 points, 15 rebounds and 12 blocks. Baldwin is 6-4 this season. Against Louisburg, Disbrow delivered 10 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. The 6-footer also played for Wheat State Elite this summer.
Her teammate, Caitlyn Foltz, has put up impressive numbers, including 23 points and 16 rebounds within the last week.
8. Breanna Rath, Golden Plains – experience
Golden Plains is final four and state runner-up in Class 1A, Division II the last two seasons. GP had the longest regular season winning streak snapped earlier this winter, but longtime coach Parker Christensen has a 7-2 team that has permitted just 23.1 points a contest. Rath earned acclaim for her on-ball defense at the state tournament last March and is one of 1A’s top all-around players. Both losses have come against 2A Wichita County, an 8-2 squad.
9. Jaxi Mitchek, Goodland – on-ball
Highly experienced Goodland has multiple possibilities for defensive player of the year, including seniors Talexa Weeter and Lindsey Cure. Weeter, known for her scoring, is headed to Fort Hays basketball. Cure is going to Division II Regis volleyball. But Jaxi Mitchek has an array of defensive abilities in the Goodland 1-3-1 defense.
The 5-10 Mitchek has shown good quickness and quick hands to stay in front of offensive players and get steals. She is an excellent on-ball defender and can guard all five positions. Goodland is 9-0 and has permitted 32.2 points er game. The resume includes wins against Cimarron and Hugoton. Both opponents have a Division I player.
8. Mid-Continent League
WaKeeney-Trego sophomore point guard Reece Smith has significantly helped the Golden Eagles since she moved in. Her dad, Matt, took a TCHS administrative position after a longtime head football coaching career at Coldwater-South Central and Atwood.
Smith has delivered 3.2 steals a contest and paces the Golden Eagles in deflections. She’s Trego’s best on-ball defender. Trego is 6-4 and has allowed 40.4 points a game.
Phillipsburg senior guard Taryn Sides is a returning Top 5 all classes pick and Kansas State commit. Sides is well-known for her offense and led Kansas in scoring as a junior. But Sides is an elite defensive player. She held Goodland’s Weeter to three points in the sub-state championship game last winter. Weeter averaged 18 as a junior. She held Smith, who had just come off a 30-point game, scoreless nearly all contest in a recent win against WaKeeney. Sides has 24 points and five steals a contest.
Phillipsburg is 11-0 and dominating its schedule, including ranked wins against Central Plains and Smith Center. The Panthers have permitted 28.9 points a contest.
Other notable defensive players to watch:
Maddie Schrandt, Andale (considered Andale’s best on-ball defender; headed to Division I Missouri State beach volleyball; state champ in volleyball; won 200, 400, 1,600 relay at state track last spring; Andale has allowed 28 points a game)
Brooklyn Deleye, Washburn Rural (best volleyball player in Kansas, excellent shot blocker,)
Brianna Gehring, Oberlin-Decatur Community (has helped Oberlin to 6-4 mark, 31.6 ppa; six rebounds, four steals a contest)
Emily Eck, Ellis (likely first team all-MCL, leading 7-3 Railers; Ellis has allowed 39.4 ppa)
Adyson and Avery Scott, Johnson-Stanton County (has led huge turnaround for SC; 7-14 last year to 9-2 this season)
Carli Carlson, Clearwater (dynamic all-around player; all-defense in her conference last year)
Paige Martin, Mission Valley (12 points, six rebounds, five steals, two blocks a game)
Brooklyn Jones, Lebo (highlighted player for Wolves, ranked No. 2 in 1A-II; committed K-State for javelin)
Morgan Ruff, Jetmore-Hodgeman County (key player on back-to-back final four teams; HC is 10-1; 17 points, 4 steals this year)
Trista Hoobler/Ashten Pierson/Lexi Hecht, Wamego (Hoobler, Pierson will play a college sport; Hecht top player in Class of 2026)
Izzy Joyce, Shawnee Mission West (Central Missouri soccer signee; leads Sunflower League in steals)
Brenley Cunningham, Gardner-Edgerton (among Sunflower League leaders in steals)
London Cousin, Olathe North (paces ON in steals for a team that replaced nearly everyone off Final 4 squad)
Jaden Wilson/Addy Brown, Derby (both with big numbers; Brown top-100 national recruit)
Anna Briggs, Quinter (17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks a game for 9-1 Bulldogs; Quinter was 8-13 last year without Briggs)
Kirston Verhulst, Bishop Miege (20 points a game, leads 4A No. 1 Miege in steals and blocks, per KC High School Hoops leaderboard, possibly Kansas’ best sophomore)