Nex-Tech Wireless Central Kansas Athletes of the Month: Smith Center girls’ basketball continues great season without coach Linn

Smith Center’s Maile Hrabe has averaged 18 points per game and helped the Lady Red continue to win after longtime coach Nick Linn fell ill.


ELLIS – On Jan. 6, the Smith Center girls’ basketball team won at Ellis, 69-68, in double overtime. The Lady Red improved to 6-1. Smith Center was ranked fourth in 2A.

The Lady Red were a final four team last March under longtime coach Nick Linn and veteran assistant Denyse Kattenberg. The duo has the same roles in volleyball where Linn won his 1000th career match in the sport last fall. SC is second, first and second in 2A state volleyball the last three years.

Smith Center has its well-known volleyball/basketball group of lone senior Maile Hrabe, a Kansas Wesleyan basketball signing, and the junior quartet of point guard Camryn Hutchinson, post Tinley Rentschler, wing Dakota Kattenberg and guard Gracie Kirchhoff.

Three days after the Ellis win, Linn’s life drastically changed. A 34-year-old coaching veteran at Smith Center, Linn underwent emergency double heart bypass surgery. Kattenberg took over as head coach. Linn has rehabbed and has not been able to return to coaching. Among other hurdles, his voice still hurts and doesn’t carry after surgery.

“For lack of a better word – hell,” Linn said. “Because I can’t stand this.”

Linn had tried to help Kattenberg with the scouting and game-planning, a role he’d done for decades. That has decreased because of the health complications. He hasn’t seen many contests.

Linn has come to just two in-person games, including the 50-45 sub-state semifinal victory against Thomas More Prep-Marian on Friday night. The game came in the 2A Ellis sub-state, the site of Linn’s last win as head coach.

“I am getting through it,” Linn said. “Just didn’t think it would be me.”

Kattenberg said “all” of the head coaching duties “jumps into my lap.” She and her husband have two children, Dakota, and an eighth-grade boy. Kattenberg’s dad, Doug Finch, was a longtime high school coach, notably at Topeka Hayden and Salina Central. Kattenberg’s sister, Dayna Finch Weltmer, played and coached Division I. She coached the current SC girls in junior high.

“Everything changed,” she said. “Like my life. I have not been a good mother, or a good wife for quite some time now. Because it’s like all about basketball, which is OK, I love it so much.”

Linn thought he could return earlier this winter, though that is not the case. Linn gave significant praise to his veteran players, Kattenberg and assistant Heather Sasse.

“I can sit in the bleachers and not raise my voice, and just watch and feel pretty good about it,” he said.

Smith Center never dwelled on the obstacles the year presented.

“I miss him so much,” Kattenberg said. “We just make such a good team, and when he went down, these girls just are so resilient.”

She served as head coach for the core group in volleyball and basketball for several elementary school years starting when the current juniors were in third grade.

“They are just the best, hard-working kids ever,” Kattenberg said. “Like when something doesn’t go their way, they don’t show it on their face, and they don’t show it to each other. They never bicker. They just go out, and it’s like blue collar winning. They just fight, and they hate to lose. And you can just tell, they are just such a group of hard-working kids.”

Kattenberg, a Smith Center graduate, played for Linn four years and has coached beside him for 16 years.

“It kind of helped a lot knowing everybody’s talents,” Hrabe said.

“You get lucky every how many years to have a group of good kids coming in,” Kattenberg added.

Linn said Kattenberg “has earned it” as a head coach; she has long been highly considered one of the Kansas’ top assistant coaches. Linn would like to return for “one more year,” but said Kattenberg is “ready” if he can’t.

“That’s the hardest part, because all along I kept thinking, ‘By this time of the year, I am going to try to make it.’ There’s no way, and I am resigned to the fact that this team is in really good hands,” Linn said.

On Saturday, Smith Center (19-3) faces Hoxie (17-5) in the sub-state championship game. Start time is 7 p.m. from Ellis. Hrabe’s main Twitter photo is a picture of Linn talking to his team.

“It’s been great,” Hrabe said. “I mean, it’s sad that coach Linn’s not here, but Denyse has done a great job as the coach. She stepped in and has done an amazing job.”

Hoxie has a veteran group under alumnus Easton Slipke. The Indians are highly efficient and average .92 points per possession, per SIK research and MaxPreps statistics. Hoxie’s experienced group includes Josey Kennedy, Kinley Rogers, Tori Bainter and Emily Bainter. Kennedy, known as a gym rat, “in the gym 24/7” and loving basketball, averages 18 points per game.

“Before the season started, I told her, ‘You can be a first team all-state girl, all-state guard,’” Slipke said. “And I think she has proven that so far this year.”

Kennedy delivered 27 points in a 65-36 semifinal win against WaKeeney on Friday. In the middle of the second quarter, Hoxie was shooting about 65 percent.

“We have been kind of struggling the last two games offensively, shooting, moving the ball, things like that, but we set good screens tonight,” Slipke said. “We were pushing the ball in transition, got good looks, post-ups were good, and we saw the floor well.”

On Jan. 20, Hoxie beat Smith Center, 71-55. Eleven days later, Smith Center won 57-55. Hoxie has set goals for at least an 18-win season and a first state trip in seven years. Hoxie started out strong in the SC win. In the second game, the Lady Red led 18-3. Hoxie took the lead before halftime. Slipke called Smith Center’s transition offense “unbelievable” with limited half court turnovers.

“It would be much easier if we started the game off strong,” Slipke said. “And I think that’s the biggest momentum. Hrabe was hot the second time we played.”

Since Kattenberg took over, Smith Center has taken two losses, to Hoxie and undefeated Phillipsburg. That includes three single figure wins against TMP, including Friday. Last summer, 23 teams, including SC had a player selected to the Kansas Basketball coaches all-star game. The Lady Red had to replace Tallon Rentschler, a KBCA all-star pick.

“Our chemistry, we have worked together through volleyball, basketball, from fourth grade up until now, like we just click,” Hrabe said.

Hrabe has stepped up with 18 points a game, and Kattenberg has delivered 13 points, more than eight rebounds and nearly five assists a contest. Hutchinson averages around four assists per game, Kirchhoff three. Kirchhoff missed a month with injury, though delivered eight points against TMP. Rentschler has two blocks a contest. Hrabe finished with a game-high 23; she has 10 games with 20 or more points this year. Kattenberg has 10 double-doubles and one triple-double.

“We know we can’t get chippy with each other,” Hrabe said. “Like we know we have to be positive and keep a positive attitude, and TMP kind of showed a little bit of chippiness toward each other, and we took that, and we fueled ourselves.”

The 5-foot-5 Hutchinson, long known for her toughness and hustle, collected a season-best 13 rebounds. SC rarely trailed, though the Monarchs tied the game at 42 with 1:17 left. The Lady Red made six straight free throws to close out the game.

“It was definitely exciting,” Hrabe said. “We definitely knew we had them. Like we knew we were the better team. We knew we had to come out and own the court, like we did at home (versus TMP) the past two times. But it was really fun.”

Afterward, coach Kattenberg stood in a corner of the Ellis gym next to a ramp that led to a locker room. She watched Hoxie and Trego warmup.

“They honestly are the best of friends, and they just care for each other,” Kattenberg said. “They care for me being Dakota’s mom and being with them this whole time, so I can’t stress enough how great a group of kids these guys are.”

On her right shoulder, Kattenberg carried a bag that read “Coach Linn.” She has consistently had it since coach Linn has been gone.

“It just kind of made me feel like he was still here,” she said. “Because it’s killing him to be up in those stands, and it’s killing him not to be here. He has been trying to come to practice, but not staying much. The good thing about him is he is not back behind me telling me what to do. He has all the confidence in me and these girls that we are going to be OK. But we miss him so much, and we can’t wait till the day he comes back.”

This entry was posted in Basketball. Bookmark the permalink.