Girls must reload to challenge again

One year ago, Paola Panthers Girls Head Basketball Coach Stuart Ross knew he had lightning in a bottle. The Panthers took to the hardwoods with a “dream team” senior lead squad that was, from day one, destined to challenge for a state championship.

Challenge they did, as the team lead by Taelor Karr, Rachel Hanf, and Megan Hayes, reeled off 19 straight wins on the way to a state tournament fourth place finish and a sterling 23-3 overall record. Even though the season’s end was a bitter pill two swallow, now one year later the Panthers are coming off arguably the best season in their history, and are face with the daunting task of replacing a couple of the finest female athletes to ever play for the Panthers.

WLH0382 But, Ross is confident the Panthers will be able to thrive in the post Karr, Hanf and Hayes era by reaching back and drawing on the past tradition and success that has been the hallmark for Panther Girls Basketball in recent memory.

“All three are college athletes right now,” he said. “Karr and Hanf are two of the best players this school, and this league, will ever see come through.  Both are currently starting as freshman at a Big 12 powerhouse (Karr at K-State) and DII national juggernaut (Hanf at Emporia State).

“The simple fact is, we can never replace those kinds of players.  But, good news is we don’t have to,” he continued. “To be successful, we have to be who we are.”

Ross went on to outline some of the strengths and weaknesses he as noticed in the opening weeks of practice. One area has jumped out at him, and, the beauty of the situation is, with the loss of such dynamic players, this year’s squad is going to have to pull together as a team to be competitive. Gone are the players, which last year could take over and dominate a game. That capability is not part of the Panther arsenal this year. The Panthers have two or three players who can step up and give a boost when necessary, but no on on this year’s squad can dominate the game like Karr, Hanf, and Hayes did.

“The truth be told, our team strength this year is also our weakness,” Ross siad. “This year, we don’t have any “go to” players in the past. No one that can truly take over when needed. However, that translates to a strength; balance. You can’t shut down one player on this team and be successful shutting down our team.”

WLH0359 But, this is not to say that all the experience of this team graduated last May, quite the contrary. The Panthers do not lack experience, quite the opposite, and part of the luxury of having such a talented squad last year was the ability to get a lot of players a lot of playing time. Numerous players got big time game experience, because of the talent level of the senior class. Many times the Panthers would race out to big leads, giving Ross the ability to substitute at will, big leads produce playing time for bench players, which translates into experience the next season.

“We are more experienced than many realize. There is a solid core of experienced players returning this year,” Ross said. “The fundamental difference with our experience is we have great support experience, but little command experience. The players who are returning will have to learn, quickly, how to take control on the floor and lead us to success.”

Much of the lack of floor leadership falls back on the lack of “go to” players. The Panthers are going to have to embrace leadership roles quickly, find an identity and a role for each player and gel as a team to be successful. Much of that responsibility will fall to younger players, players who got valuable playing time last year, but were not asked to step into leadership roles. Those players will have to come to the front of the line and take the reins to guide the Panthers through the season.

In watching the Panthers in practice and early scrimmages, even the casual observer would note the squad lacks height. It’s not that the team is short, there’s just no real dominate tall person that one would look to for play in the paint. Conversely, the Panthers are not midgets either. The Panthers have comfortable height across the board, none the less, this will be a guard dominated team. It will be necessary for the guards to step up and play hard, to get out and make other teams pay with fast paced, pressure defense and solid play, protecting the ball up and down the floor.

“It’s no surprise that our size is suspect. On the defensive end, our lack of size has to be compensated by quickness and physical play. That’s the only way we have a prayer,” Ross said. “What is more important, especially on both ends, is how our guards play. Good guards make good post players  If our guards play up to potential, our post players’ job will be much easier.”

Ross has been especially pleased with the guard play of Melanie Golubski, Cheyenne Rankin and Mackenzie Hallstrom, who he looks to step into the mix with returning veterans, Kayla Offutt, Ashlee Johnson, Courtney Johnson, Kylie Mader, Rachel Schmidt and Allison Wood.

“I think we are going to see some good things from Golubski, Rankin, and Hallstrom (all guards),” Ross said. “I think they have exhibited in practice they are ready to start contributing to this year’s success.”

In the end, Ross says the team’s successes or failures will all hinge on attitude, combine that with the strong tradition and program pride that has team has and that translates into one of the major strengths of this year’s Panther squad. Tradition, Ross said, pushes the team every day in practice, giving them the ability to play a more physical game when necessary, another strength of this team. Physicality and aggressive play all over the court will be needed if the Panthers are to succeed this year.

“The keys to our success are resilient, physical, and aggressive team defense. If we can’t do that, we’ll have a hard time outscoring other teams,” Ross said. “On the offensive end, we are really concentrating on offensive patience and valuing each possession. In other words, good ball movement, good shot selection, and low turnovers.”

Still, the Panthers will have a tough time duplicating the success of last year, especially playing in the always tough Frontier League. Although the league probably isn’t as strong as last year, it is always one of the most challenging leagues in the state.  Last year, Ross said the league prepared Paola to be one of the top teams in 4A.  This year, he feels that being competitive in the league, will make the team competitive with any 4A school around.  Often, Ross said, this type of competition can lead to the idea of a “good loss,” and although no one likes losing in any situation, losing against a great team will eventually prepare a team to win the same game later in the season when it really counts.

In the final analysis, the Panthers, while searching early for some identity and working hard to find floor leadership to replace members of a “once in a lifetime” group of players, will have to take a step back, and draw on the experiences of the past, reach back to the winning tradition of Panther Girls Basketball and find the pieces necessary to make this year a success.

“We have a sign that’s in our locker room that says, ‘Tradition never graduates’.” Ross concluded. “For us, this means regardless of who is on the roster, the Paola Panthers show up and leave it on the floor each and every game. As long as we continue this, I can’t ask for any more out of our kids.”