By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD— The six juniors on Halstead’s girls’ basketball team have been leading the team to win after win after win, this season.
Tuesday’s victory over Larned puts the girls at 17-3 for the season and 52-11 in their high school career, so far.
“That would be the best three-year stretch in Halstead girls history that I have seen,” head coach Derek Schutte said, adding that his records go back to 1982.
Karenna Gerber and Josie Engel have both been starters since their freshmen year, with Parker Schroeder and Haley Lewis becoming starters last year. Those four are starters again this season alongside freshman Kaleigh O’Brien, with Hailey Kelley and Kinsley Heck both clocking major varsity minutes off the bench.
Being from the same class and having played together for so many years has given the team a bond that sets them apart, they said.
“I think that’s why we’ve been so successful is that we’ve just had that bond since we came out of the womb, basically,” Kelley said.
The girls, with the exception of Schroeder, have been teammates since second or third grade.
“Literally, from the very beginning,” Lewis said.
When Schroeder moved from Sedgwick to Halstead as a sophomore, she blended right in.
The other girls said they had already known Schroeder from competing against her, plus she had been on their MAYB team in fourth and seventh grade.
As eighth-graders, the girls had a perfect 15-0 record during the 2016-17 season and claimed the Central Kansas League title. Their undefeated season was the first in the history of the HMS girls basketball program.
In the past three years, they’ve only grown better.
“I think one thing is that we’re one of the only teams that’s continuously gotten better,” Lewis said. “Hillsboro, Smoky and us when we were playing in middle school—that was the top three—and now Smoky and Hillsboro aren’t as big as opponents.”
Their team chemistry of playing selflessly and knowing their roles has benefited the team as a whole.
“Since we know each other so well, we know each others strengths and weaknesses,” Gerber said. “We know how to get each other the ball and how to move together.”
Lewis agreed about the chemistry.
“We can have a fast break, and I know Karenna’s coming down the middle, right there,” Lewis said.
Schutte said what makes this group of girls special is that they don’t back down from anyone.
“We are not always the biggest or fastest, but they just are ready to compete,” he said. “They enjoy playing defense and trying to make scoring tough on the other team.”
He noted this group has a willingness to work extra outside of practice to improve, which hasn’t always been the case during his coaching tenure.
“They’ve played together for a long time, so they’ve always had a good connection, and I think that’s gotten stronger,” Schutte said.
The girls took turns describing each other’s roles on the team, with Schutte adding some thoughts, as well.
They said that Engel is a sharpshooter from the three-point line.
“Josie is a go-getter,” Lewis added. “She’s always on the floor.”
“She’s really good at boxing out and rebounding,” Schroeder said.
Coach Schutte said Engel will do whatever it takes to win.
“Her first two years she guarded guards and now guards posts,” he said. “She has a great knack for rebounding for her size. She’s a smart player that you can move around the floor.”
The girls said Heck was super fast and plays defense like a sniper. She’s not afraid to go up against bigger players and get a steal before they know what hit them.
“She’s like a great white shark lurking through the water,” Lewis said.
Coach Schutte noted that the team calls Heck “tink,” as in Tinkerbell, because of her size and attitude.
“It’s an attitude that doesn’t back down from anyone,” he said. “She was probably our most improved player as a sophomore.”
Lewis, the team’s point guard, knows how to drive to the basket and finish shots, her teammates said.
“She handles the ball extremely well against pressure,” Engel said. “Behind the back, through the legs, all that stuff.”
“She reads the court really well,” Gerber added. “She’s another sniper.”
Schutte said Lewis is growing into that coach on the floor.
“She gets us into our sets, has a good feel for where the ball needs to go and has become a savvy defender,” he said.
Regarding Schroeder, the first thing that came to the girls’ minds was her lock-down defense.
“We can definitely count on her to shut down the shooters on the other team,” Engel said.
“She’s my co-pilot, too, out there, helping me get the plays set up and handling the pressure,” Lewis said.
They also said she was a clutch free-throw shooter and a great passer.
Schutte said Schroeder can run both ends of the floor.
“She rebounds well for her size and has become our go-to defender on the perimeter,” he said. “She’s usually drawing the other team’s best player.”
Kelley brings a lot of energy to the team, her teammates said. She’s the team DJ and gets them hyped up.
“Karenna’s the heart of the team, but I’m like the lungs,” she said of herself.
“She’s at the top of our zone, really long,” Schroeder said.
Schutte added that Kelley has grown as a shooter since her freshman year and has improved defensively and in rebounding.
The girls described Gerber as a good shot-blocker and a confident player.
“We know to get her the ball, because we know when it’s in her hands, she’s going to finish it,” Engel said.
Schutte added that Gerber has a great skill set for her size and is the team’s vocal leader.
“She’s become a wall for us on defense and continues to add to her game on offense,” he said.
Gerber reached a huge milestone in her high school basketball career last week when she scored her 1,000th point during the Feb. 18 game against Pratt.
“It felt really good,” she said. “It felt really good to do it with these girls. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
She said toward the end of last season, she and her dad had been looking at her point totals and realized that the 1,000-point mark might be within reach this year.
“It was kind of my goal at the beginning of the season, as a junior, to get to 1,000 points,” she said.
She doesn’t remember exactly how many points she had at the start of the season, but it was around 600.
During the Feb. 14 game against Hoisington, Gerber scored a career-high of 31 points, putting her total at 996 points at the end of the night. She had thought she might reach 1,000 points that game.
“It was a goal, but I knew I’ve never scored 35 before, so I didn’t know if it was going to happen or not, but I was aiming for it,” she said, adding that it was nice to reach the mark during a home game.
Most players who reach 1,000 points do so as a senior, not a junior.
“It’s pretty special for someone to do their junior year, but she’s worked extremely hard for it,” Schutte said.
Schutte is only aware of one other female player from Halstead to reach the 1,000-point mark, which was Stacy Keller, but he’s still doing research to find out if there were others. Keller totaled 1,386 points, but Schutte isn’t sure if this is the school record.
The girls said they love their coaches, Schutte as well as assistant coaches Jodi Lies and Casson Schmidt.
“They know the game and they’re good, but more importantly, they’re good people,” Gerber said.
“I think our coaches are really well-rounded people,” Kelley added.
Postseason and Beyond
As sub-state competition gets started next week, the girls believe they have what it takes to make it to state. To do so, they’ll have to get past Haven, the team that’s responsible for two of Halstead’s three losses this year. Hesston and Cheney will also be solid competitors, they said.
“We obviously have got to bring our A game,” Gerber said.
“It’s not about who we play, it’s just about how we’re going to play,” Engel said.
Making it to the state tournament is something that’s been on their minds since they were seven or eight years old, according to Lewis.
“I still remember when Karenna’s dad took us down the hallway down here and look at everything on the wall, and there wasn’t a single girls’ sub-state champion or state champion,” she said.
That still holds true. The Halstead girls have made it to the sub-state finals twice but never actually qualified. They think this could be the year.
“We’re kind of realizing it’s almost over, so we want to make it happen, to make history,” Engel added.
Kelley said everyone on the team is focused on the same thing.
“We all know that state’s possible and we know that we can reach it,” Kelley said.
Gerber added that the team wants to prove people wrong.
Given the close bond they’ve developed through basketball for so many years, they say it’s going to be tough when that comes to an end next year.
“I’m still dreading the last time I get to walk out there with all of them,” Lewis said.
“I don’t think it’s hit any of us yet that we have one more year,” Engel said.
The girls appreciate the backing they receive from the community.
“We’re just thankful for the community support, too,” Engel said. “We have so many parents and fans that show up to our games.”