By CONOR NICHOLL
“They love my family” – Atchison County and Class 3A girls
Austin Eckert played for Effingham-Atchison County. His wife, Brooke, was on the ACCHS 2012 team that earned fourth place at state. The squad won the only league title in program annals. Austin and Brooke were married in 2018. This basketball season marked Austin’s eighth year coaching, third as head coach.
Austin returned 98 percent of scoring a team that finished 17-5 in Class 2A last year. The Tigers bumped up a class and is Kansas’ smallest 3A school. Mike Eckert, Austin’s father, is his son’s lead assistant.
The Tigers are loaded with seven seniors, including Natalie Nitz, Aleah Wallisch and Addison Schletzbaum. The community has recognized the basketball talent from the group since they were in fifth grade. All three are four-year starters.
When the winter started, Austin and Brooke had two daughters, three-year-old Gwynn and five-month-old Amaya. On Dec. 7, 2022, Amaya passed away. At that point, Atchison County was 1-0 after a season-opening win versus league foe Maur Hill.
Austin and Mike each took leave; Austin was out for two weeks. Brooke and Austin talked about him not coaching. Austin spoke with his father. He elected to return.
“Amaya wouldn’t want me to stop doing something that I love,” he said.
Austin called his team “pretty amazing, and “medicine.” The squad had helped to liven him back up. He has relied on the team to do some of the “heavy lifting.” Plus, Austin credited ACCHS alum Rachel Newquist, the first-year freshman and JV coach, for playing a key role.
“They are really good kids,” he said. “And they love my family. My daughters were at everything.”
Two months later, Atchison County is 15-1. Austin said this winter and 2012 are the two best teams in school annals. The Tigers are part of an historically deep group of highly experienced 3A teams that includes Phillipsburg, Goodland, Silver Lake, Nemaha Central and Cheney.
“It’s put a lot of things in perspective,” Austin told SIK. “I wouldn’t say I get as worked up about things, I would say – as I have in years past. And I have relied more on our senior leadership. … Our kids teach the younger ones, or our kids take some of the scouting.”
On Jan. 7, the Tigers defeated Jackson Heights and ended the Cobras’ 51-game conference winning streak. From Jan. 27-Feb. 3, AC went 4-1, including an overtime win against Rossville, a Jefferson County North tournament championship victory versus Perry-Lecompton, and a comeback 51-49 league victory versus Jackson Heights last Friday that sealed a league title. AC is currently ranked fifth by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
Nitz has 13.3 points per game and shot 39 percent from behind the arc. She has made 219 career treys, including a huge 3 with a minute left to tie Rossville. Eckert labeled her the best 3-point shooter, boy or girl, in Atchison County history. Wallisch has 12.9 points and a team-best 8.4 rebounds. Sophomore Kinzee Bauerle has 12.6 points.
Schletzbaum recently reached 1,000 career points and has committed to University of St. Mary basketball. She was cleared from a June ACL injury the first week of basketball. Schletzbaum attended physical therapy three mornings a week 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Plus, she drove nearly 100 miles round trip twice a week to Lawrence for personal training. Schletzbaum didn’t start contact until a few weeks later.
“The toughness, and the heart that these kids show, they want to win,” Eckert said. “They want to win. They want to compete. They want to do well. We have some really good senior leadership.”
Schletzbaum has 9.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists per contest. She drew a foul with 1.2 seconds left against Rossville and made both to send it to overtime. Her passing and decision-making have helped Atchison significantly improve its offensive efficiency from last winter. Six-foot-one freshman Madison Martin, whose dad played on the ACCHS state title team in 1994, has blocked two shots a contest.
“This team,” Austin said. “is probably the most talented team from top to bottom that we’ve ever had. The most experienced team we’ve ever had, so it’s all kind of coming together.”
However, Atchison County is far from the only 3A girls’ squad that’s delivered the best team or player for a respective program in 2022-23.
Class 3A is long known for its depth. This year, it’s reached historical levels. And – because of KSHSAA’s model of geographic sub-states in 3-1A – several of the top teams will have to face each other before state.
“I would say 3A is probably the deepest class of all the classifications – of really high quality basketball teams, boys and girls,” Eckert said. “Every year, there’s just five teams that can win a state championship, and you might not be able to say that about every division.”
A combined 10 losses for eight 3A teams entering state?
Entering Thursday, 3A has nine teams with zero, one or two losses. No other class has more than six. Longtime Haven coach Dwight Roper serves as the KBCA representative. Roper has people that he contacts and vice versa throughout Kansas for the rankings.
“We have a lot of three-sport athletes,” Roper said. “And there’s not as much specialization.”
“Normally you have a lot of kids that have played a long time together, and there is a level of chemistry,” Silver Lake coach Kyle Porter added of 3A. “And they understand what they need to do to be successful.”
The top-10 in the KBCA rankings are: Goodland (17-0), Phillipsburg (16-0), Silver Lake (15-1), Nemaha Central (15-1), Atchison County (15-1), Cheney (14-2), Eureka (14-2), Southeast of Saline (14-2), Haven (13-3) and Cimarron (13-3).
The rest of the state combines for five undefeated squads. Goodland, the defending 3A champion, has won 30 straight games, Kansas’ longest current winning streak for any class or gender.
Last year, Goodland beat Hugoton in the state championship when the Eagles’ buzzer-beater shot narrowly missed. Goodland beat SL by six in the semifinals, and Hugoton beat Nickerson by seven in the other semifinal.
The eight state tournament teams combined for 26 losses entering state. All seven girls’ classes had at least 21 collective losses among the state qualifying teams.
This year, if all the No. 1 seeds in the 3A sub-states win, the 3A state tournament will have a combined 10 losses.
“Small schools value athletics,” Porter said. “Kids want to compete for their school, there’s a level of pride. That’s special, and I think maybe plays itself out in why 3A is such a challenge.”
Even if all the No. 2 seeds win (which would yield massive upsets), those teams have currently lost a combined 25 times.
In 2021, no girls’ classification had fewer than 23 losses among the eight qualifying teams. Class 3A had the fewest.
In 2020, Class 1A was one classification. It had the fewest combined losses with 14 with three undefeated teams. No other class was under 20.
In 2019, 1A again had three undefeated teams and 14 total losses. No other classification was under 19.
“I would say in the last two years 3A basketball has been really, really good,” Porter said. “And based on what I have seen from teams across the state – you look at the last four teams in the state tournament and any of those teams could have won it in my opinion.”
Roper believes 20-25 teams could be ranked in the top-10 at anytime. He called the depth “unbelievable.”
“3A is just really good,” Roper said. “And this year, you get up around Silver Lake and up in that area, there’s really good teams, too. … This year, it seems to be really balanced and really deep.”
Phillipsburg and SES are both in the Russell sub-state. Nemaha Central and Atchison County are each in the Marysville sub-state, along with Minneapolis (13-4). Cheney, Haven and Hesston (11-5) are in the Lyons sub-state.
“I just watched Cheney play three days in a row (at the Haven tournament),” Roper said. “And they are really good again. Hesston is really good. This area especially, our sub-state is going to be unbelievable.”
“The seniors have improved a lot”
Goodland and Cimarron headline the Lakin sub-state. When the new classes came out, Eckert “wasn’t the happiest” that AC was bumped to 3A.
Two sub-states don’t have any ranked teams. Cherryvale (13-3) headlines the Girard sub-state. Santa Fe Trail (13-2 with a 19-point loss to Silver Lake on Jan. 14) is atop the Anderson County sub-state.
If 3A’s sub-states were seeded by record like 4-6A, Atchison County and Nemaha Central would not be in the same sub-state. It’s likely Southeast of Saline and Phillipsburg, along with Cheney and Haven would be split.
“In a 3A format, you want to have the eight best teams make it to the state tournament ideally,” Porter said. “And certainly that doesn’t always happen when you look at the sub-states and the regional pairings. There are going to be teams this year that don’t make it to the state tournament that you want to pick the top eight, they probably should be in there.”
MaxPreps has statewide statistical rankings that combine strength of schedule and quality of victories. Nine 3A squads are in the top-31, a staggering total for one class: Goodland (ranked second), Phillipsburg (sixth), Silver Lake (seventh), Cheney (15th), Nemaha Central (16th), Eureka (27th), Southeast of Saline (28th), Cimarron (30th), and Atchison County (31st). Among other wins, Haven has defeated 5A Great Bend once and 4A Pratt twice.
Haven has allowed just 33 points per game behind three seniors: Kinley Jacques, Carlee Bland and Brie Brawner, all four-year players.
“The seniors have improved a lot for us,” Roper said. “A lot of it is just work ethic and showing up everyday.”
Junior 5-foot-10 Sadie Estill has significantly played. Sophomore Sienna DeFrain, and freshman Avery Brawner, a highly athletic 6-footer, are the other two Wildcats for a squad that normally goes six deep. Entering February, DeFrain led in scoring at 13 points, Estill had eight rebounds, and Brie Brawner at 4.5 assists per game. The top-six average between 5.5 and 13 points a contest.
“Defense is definitely what has carried us,” Roper said.
3A: “A tougher schedule, that should be weighted”
Roper does not agree with the current sub-state structure.
“You are not getting your best teams,” Roper said. “I would think that’s what everybody would want would be the best eight teams possible at the state tournament.”
He is also for a quality win/strength of schedule component.
“When you are playing a tougher schedule, that should be weighted,” Roper said. “There are 3A schools that play the majority of 1A, 2A schedule, and we see it every year at the state tournament. I am not going to name names, but I have seen teams come in there with a very good record. … If you look at schedules, a lot of times that’s indicative of how good the team is.”
Roper, among others in volleyball and basketball, has advocated for dividing the state into quadrants.
“You could pair up sub-states,” Roper said. “Go ahead and name your host of your sub-state. That’s fine. But for instance, like our sub-state and another sub-state close, seed those two. Split up Hesston and Cheney.”
Roper has heard different reasons why certain schools are resistant to change.
“This year, the deal was, they couldn’t find enough officials,” Roper said. “My answer to that is, you are still playing the same amount of games on the same night. You are just splitting the sub-states up. You are not playing extra games. The other thing I have heard is there’s certain parts of the state that they don’t want to go to any seeding, because they will never get a team in, and that’s exactly what I was told.”
Silver Lake, under Porter, returned every player from a final four squad that lost to Goodland. That includes junior post Kenzie McDaniel, who has a Division I Abilene Christian offer. SL defeated three 4A squads to win the Burlington tournament.
Cheney features 6-foot-2 junior Campbell Hague, headed to Division I San Diego State volleyball. She has 11 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks per game. Cimarron’s McKayla Miller has signed with Creighton basketball. Both Goodland and Cimarron have defeated Hugoton, ranked in 4A.
“It’s a challenge with 3A, because the quality of teams varies so much compared to maybe a smaller division like a 5A where you can look at winning percentages and you can rank,” Porter said. “I think it’s a little more challenging at the 3A level, but I would like to think that we can pull from other states and figure out how to best get the top eight teams at the state tournament if at all possible. The circumstances are what they are, and you have to win games in March to get there, and I think that there’s something to be said about that as well.”
Phillipsburg: “Having my best friend back is really fun”
Goodland returned all but one player from last year and features Talexa Weeter (Fort Hays basketball commit) and 6-foot-1 Lindsey Cure (Division II Regis volleyball). Goodland has wins against 6A Garden City and Hays High, which has been ranked in 5A. Goodland has allowed just 32.4 points a contest.
At one point this year, Goodland, Phillipsburg, Nemaha Central, Cheney, Haven, Atchison County and Silver Lake were a combined 72-2.
“It’s 3A every year,” Phillipsburg coach Rachel Miller said. “It’s just tough teams all across the state, there’s no way to get away from a powerhouse, we know that it’s going to be a tough road to even get to state, and we have got to be ready for that.
“I think it’s just a testament to just the girls’ basketball across the state being strong and great coaching,” she added. “That’s a pretty prominent record compared to the other classes. You are going to play the best. You have got to beat the best to be the best.”
Phillipsburg brought back nearly its entire team, notably point guard Taryn Sides, a top-5 all-classes selection, Kansas State commit and McDonalds All-American nomination. Plus, senior post Heather Schemper, a Washburn volleyball signing, returns after she missed all last winter with injury. Sides, Schemper and senior Trinitti Gross have played together since third grade.
“The most enjoyable part is having Heather back,” Sides said. “Last year, it really took a toll on me, not having her there with me, and so having my best friend back is really fun, and we get to finish this year strong, and then as well as all my other friends. I grew up with these girls since we were really little, we have been best friends forever.”
The Panthers, which lost at Goodland in the sub-state championship game last season, has won every game by at least 17 points. Phillipsburg has victories against rival Smith Center (twice), Hoxie and Central Plains. All three are currently ranked in a non-3A class.
“Sides is so good at just controlling the tempo,” Hoxie coach Easton Slipke said. “And the pace she plays at is amazing. Schemper inside is just a dominant force. It’s so hard to key in on one girl. We tried that at the beginning, and they showed us why you can’t do that.”
As of Jan. 26, Sides had made 197 career treys for 40 percent, and shot 86 percent from the foul line.
The 50-40-90 shooting is the gold standard in basketball. Sides had averaged 69 percent on 2-point shots, 40 percent from 3s and 91 percent from the foul line. She had 22 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.9 steals and 4.7 assists per contest. Schemper was at 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds.
“We work on it a lot in practice, and that’s kind of been my job since I was little is Taryn shoots, and I get a rebound, so I have gotten used to it,” Schemper said.
Plus, sophomores Brynn Billings, Kayla Jacobs and Karissa Keeten have improved after valuable experience as freshmen. Jacobs and Keeten each average six points and two steals per contest. Phillipsburg has never won a state tournament game. The first two state berths came in ’20 and ’21.
“We have enjoyed this season a lot, and we talk about it all the time, not to take anything for granted, and we are just out here to get ourselves better, and to just have fun doing it,” Schemper said.
Phillipsburg won the Mid-Continent League tournament for the first time since 2014, a title that Miller said the program “really wanted.”
“I am just blessed,” Miller said. “I am blessed not only to coach Sides, but her supporting cast. And she will be the first to tell you, she is effective on the court, but we wouldn’t be where we are without everybody and their contributions and just how much they’ve grown, how much their defense has improved. And offensively, they have got in the gym and worked on their shot, and I think we just have a flow about us on offense – and it’s fun, it’s exciting.”
“We know, though, that if we really want to accomplish the things we want to, we have got to continue to grow, and we have got to continue to work hard, and I think this group is very determined, they are very tough, and I think they got it in them,” she added.
Silver Lake: “The game is really a game of easy baskets”
Kyle Porter won a 3A state championship at Royal Valley. After one season at Hays High, Porter moved back east and took over Silver Lake two years ago. That winter, SL reached the state tournament as the No. 8 seed. Last March, SL fell to Goodland in the final four.
This winter, Porter brought back his entire team. Multiple Eagles were key contributors on his first squad, either as a freshman or sophomore. The current group features seniors Taylor Ross, Mariah Farmer, Juliya Steele, along with juniors Sarah Wehrli, Kaylee Deiter, Makenzie McDaniel, Kaibryn Kruger, and McKinley Kruger. Plus, freshman Kailyn Hanni is a key player.
“Someone that doesn’t get as much credit as what she’s deserved is Mariah Farmer,” Porter said. “She has been about as solid as you can be on the defensive end. For the last three years, she has picked up the opponent point guard full court zig-zagged them. In fact, we are going to name our zig-zag drill, the ‘Mariah drill’ after she is gone, because that’s what she does so well.”
McKinley Kruger has started since her freshman year. Kaibryn Kruger came off the bench as a freshman. Ross and McDaniel have started all three years for Porter. Deiter has been a significant contributor the last two winters.
The experience has led a 15-1 start with only a 48-47 triple-overtime loss to Riley County on Jan. 13. SL has wins against 4A’s Paola, Clay Center, Ottawa and Independence, all by at least 13 points.
Porter has used the expression “we want to be on the hunt” this winter. Porter has stressed this team should be the ones to dictate the tempo, take the quality shots and force the opponent to take poor shots. SL has continued to find an edge and have the mentality of “we are going to bring it every single night, and we are going to be the ones that dictate what goes on in the game.” Porter said Silver Lake has recently improved on that.
“Every team is unique,” Porter said. “Every circumstance is unique, and so this year with having everybody back again and high expectations, I think that early in the season, there were times where we got a little comfortable, we weren’t as hungry. Every team is going to give you their best shot, every team is going to going to be ready to play and compete. And I think there has been times in our season where we have been on our heels maybe at the start of the game because that other team was ready to go.”
Porter looks at the game from multiple aspects, similarly to a college program. In a 55-36 win against Santa Fe Trail on Jan. 24, Porter had the game broken down into eight “four-minute wars.” The difference came in the third and fourth “war” when SL outscored SFT, 17-2.
“Generally speaking, if you win more four-minute wars than your opponent, you have a really good chance to win the game,” Porter said. “And within that, you can see where it shows the flow of the game.”
Plus, he looks at points per possession and the well-known four factors of basketball: effective field goal percentage, turnovers, rebounds and free throws made. In his game, SL outshot SFT, 45-23 percent, and was plus-15 on the glass. He looks at transition points, points in the paint (scoring area), and second chance points.
“One of the challenges as a coach is make the game as simple as possible for our players and try to be as clear as we can with what we want, our expectations and what leads to successful outcomes,” Porter said.
As well, Porter tracks whether Silver Lake had a paint touch on each offensive possession. In the win, SL had a paint touch on 35 of 55 possessions and was much more effective when doing so. He wants at least 70 percent of shots contested with 80 percent an elite mark. Porter is big with “gold habits” and has a line of “own it. Learn. Improve.”
“The game is really a game of easy baskets,” Porter said. “And if you can get more easy baskets than your opponent, you have a higher chance to win the game.”
He has notes on a couple of improvements for each contest. Assistants Mark Johnson and Perry Krogman have a key role, too. Porter has always had a game summary since his first year at Royal Valley. It’s evolved throughout the years, and this winter it’s continually painted a picture of why Silver Lake is having success.
“Really, it’s about trying to break the game down into ‘this is why we won, this is why we lost, this is our process for winning games,’” Porter said.