Trio of starters, including Kaufman, key to Hillsboro’s state basketball title hopes
The 49-38 score probably remains etched in third-year Lady Trojan basketball coach Nathan Hiebert’s memory.
At the same time, Hillsboro’s first-round loss in the 2009 Class 3A state girls tournament to eventual champion Southwestern Heights should give the Lady Trojans a boost of confidence heading into this season.
Not to mention motivation.
“It’s definitely a motivation,” Hiebert said of Hillsboro’s outlook for the year and last year’s ending. “The area that I’m excited the most about is the girls believing in themselves. When they believe it can happen, I think they buy into the system more.
“They believe the defense can work, the offense works and they believe in the players around them. If you truly don’t believe it’s possible, I don’t think you play like it.”
With the way last season began with the Trojans staggering through a minefield of an early season schedule, Hutchinson’s state tournament appeared to be a long shot.
But Hillsboro caught fire at the right time, and Hutchinson became reality.
With three starters returning — including three-sport star Dakota Kaufman from last year’s 14-10 state qualifier — don’t expect the Trojans to sneak up on anybody this season.
“I’m excited about the season. We bring back some great experience from last year and have had some good competition from the underclassmen so far,” he said. “The area that I have been the most excited and impressed with is the girls’ work ethic and attitude.
“From the first day of practice, they’ve worked very hard in every drill, have stayed positive, and have been very coachable.”
Will that be enough to get the Trojans back to Hutchinson as another tough early season schedule awaits Hiebert and the Trojans?
Graduation hit Hillsboro hard, and replacing Kassidi Luthi, Cassie Kroeker, Abi Humber, Tiffany Rooker, and Jet Skiles will not be an easy task, but Hiebert’s cupboard is by no means bare.
Part of what got the Trojans to Hutchinson a year ago was a tenacious defense, which came to life after the first of the year. Along with staying healthy, that defense will be key again this year.
“If you look at the best teams in the state, they can defend, they don’t allow easy buckets or allow other teams to run their offense effectively,” Hiebert said. “Most are also pretty good offensively, but playing strong defense gives you a chance to win every night.
“We would like to be able to dictate what the other team does.”
After having their hopes of capturing a state volleyball title ruined Halloween weekend in Salina, seniors Candace Weinbrenner and Kaufman are down to their last two strikes for a state title.
The 6-foot-1 Kansas State University volleyball signee Kaufman has the ability to take over a game, finish inside, and cause opponents problems with her tremendous athleticism.
Kaufman led the Trojans in nearly every category, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds, en route to earning All-Class 3A recognition by both The Wichita Eagle, and The Topeka Capital-Journal.
The 5-foot-6 Weinbrenner is no stranger to success at point guard, her brothers Tyler and Eric were standouts for the Trojans the earlier part of the decade.
Weinbrenner averaged nearly three assists and two steals a game last year, and is well suited to run Hiebert’s offense.
Her great quickness, good defense, and ball handling allow her to create chaos for opponents.
Joining Weinbrenner in the Trojans’ high-octane backcourt is junior Allie Faul.
Hillsboro might not have made it to Hutchinson without Faul’s last-second 3-pointer, which sank Remington in the first round of 2009’s Marion sub-state.
Faul is deadly from behind the arc, and much like Weinbrenner, is good at disrupting opponents’ offense.
Faul has improved her decision-making with the basketball and will only benefit from last season.
Other than Franny Gottsch in the frontcourt, Hiebert’s still taking applications to fill his starting rotation.
Despite being 5-foot-10, Gottsch can play either on the wing or on the post.
Gottsch has a tremendous work ethic, intensity, and provides a boost rebounding and getting to the basket.
Should Hiebert elect to go with a big lineup, he has the Heyen twins, Elise and Emma, Krista Reimer, and Tena Loewen to choose from.
The quartet brings a wide variety of skills to the table, some more offensively, and some more defensively.
Both Loewen and Reimer can fit in the backcourt, too, and there’s an ongoing battle between senior Sarah Unruh, junior Becky Faber, and sophomore Callie Serene to find spots as well.
Faber and Serene are threats outside the perimeter, and Loewen, Unruh, and Reimer have the strength to battle inside.
With both lingering around the 6-foot mark, the Heyens, too, have the ability to create matchup problems inside, and Hiebert has noticed a vast improvement from a year ago.
The early schedule should provide Hiebert and the Trojans a good indication on what must be improved to challenge for a second Class 3A title in three years.
With two of the state’s premier players in Ashia Woods and Camri Phox, Wichita Collegiate is easily the odds-on favorite to avenge last year’s state final loss to Southwest Heights, let alone win the MCAA in its final season.
Instead of drawing the Cheney Invitational as they have the past three seasons, instead Hillsboro gets the Moundridge Tournament.
The Trojans’ second opponent, Garden Plain, has a strong tradition and Hesston is never a cakewalk for Hillsboro.
Surviving the MCAA will be a tough act to follow as well with Nickerson and Marion looking to throw a wrench in Collegiate’s plans.
Randy Savage’s Lady Warriors were projected to finish as runner-up to Collegiate in the preseason poll, and with Julia Zeiner, Lindsay Hett, and Kayley Heerey returning, Marion’s going to be tough for anybody.
The Trojan Classic, the third week of January, always fields stiff competition with 3A stalwart Riley County and 4A power Thomas More Prep in attendance.
“One of my concerns is how well we’ll handle this tough, early schedule,” Hiebert said. “Will we be able to maintain focus game-in and game-out in the beginning?
“If we continue the strong work ethic and continue to learn and improve, we are just going to get better and better throughout the season.”