ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
by Don Ratzlaff
Some seasons, a coach has one eye on the present and one eye looking to the future. For Becky Carlson and this year’s Hillsboro girls’ team, the future is now.
Blessed with one of the most talented and deep senior classes in her 17 years at the helm, Carlson knows this year is special-and has the potential to be great.
“We’ve got a lot of experienced returners and lot of talented players who are going to make a big difference this year,” Carlson said.
Six of her nine returning seniors are letter winners, and the rest were key players on a junior varsity team that lost only one game last season.
“They’re athletic, that’s for sure,” Carlson said. “They have good court savvy and they work together really well.
“I’ve never had this many seniors before,” she added. “I don’t know how to compare this class with others I’ve had because I haven’t had that many. The level of talent is very high. I really feel I have nine seniors that could start on any other team in our league.”
Heading the list are two All-MCAA starters from last year’s 20-3, state-qualifying season.
Jill Hein, perhaps the most athletic of them all and a first-team all-league selection, will return at guard, and Shannon Kroeker, an honorable-mention pick, will return at forward and guard.
Together, the pair averaged nearly 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists a game.
“Jill has been as intense on defense as I’ve seen her in four years,” Carlson said. “She’s very aggressive. Offensively, she makes great passes, does a great job of shooting from the outside and can take the ball to the basket whenever she wants.
“Shannon is just a great shooter and she moves well without the ball,” Carlson added. “She is good on defense because her arms are so long, and she’s very fundamentally sound.”
Three seniors-Amber Hefley, Jenna Jost and Andrea Peachey-saw considerable varsity action last season, and each will make significant contributions this year at guard.
“Amber is a great one-on-one player and a great shooter,” Carlson said. “Jenna is just incredible on defense and so is Andrea. They are just all over.”
Add to that mix two more solid senior guards, Shelby Estelle and Holly Lindsay.
“Shelby can shoot the lights out and Holly works so hard and has a great shot,” Carlson said. “All of those girls are interchangeable. There’s just a lot of positives for all of them.”
The key whether the season will be good or great may rest to some degree on the post play of Sara Thiessen and Robyn Penner, a pair of 5-9 seniors who will be called on to fill the shoes of Angela Herzet, who averaged a team-leading 10.1 points and seven rebounds a game last year and was a first-team All-MCAA selection.
“Sara and Robyn need to step up as far as our inside game goes,” Carlson said. “But I really think they can do it.”
The obvious luxury that Carlson enjoys this year is depth. The benefits are multiple.
“For one thing, our practices are incredible because of the level of competition that’s out there,” she said. “Also, just knowing that I can look at the end of the bench and keep pulling more and more people in-and I don’t lose anything, no matter who I start or who plays.”
Carlson doesn’t feel playing time will be an issue, which it can be when a team is so deep.
“I hope with the style of basketball we play, that won’t be a concern,” she said. “I feel like if we can run the ball and press and be as intense as we want to be, everyone will get to play in the game.”
Which is to say, look for the Trojans to turn up the intensity all game long this season with pressure defense and a fast-break offense.
“We’ve really been pushing that,” Carlson said of the fast break. “They way they pass the ball and see the court, I think that style is a good thing for us.”
Even so, defense will be the key this season.
“I’m hoping this year we will be able to be so intense on defense that even if our shooting would be off, the rest of that would pick up, and we could relax enough that our offense would come around eventually. That will be the key.”
Carlson believes her team could repeat as Mid Division champions this season, and could match last year’s perfect 8-0 mark, but “any team in this division could win on any night,” she said.
Hesston and Lyons should be the teams to beat in a competitive Central Division.
Beyond winning the division, Carlson said her team has lofty post-season goals.
“I think these girls’ goal is to make it to state-and not just to make it there, but to go as far as they can because we have been there before,” Carlson said.
“I’m not saying anything against track or softball, but this is their last chance as a group to make their mark. They are great athletes and they know that, and they want to make their mark.”
Carlson pointed to the fall sports season as an indicator that her seniors are committed to doing that. Eight of the nine seniors played on the state-qualifying volleyball team, and the ninth senior-Hefley-placed fourth in state tennis.
“I feel that was a good start,” Carlson said.
Aside from physical talent and depth, the intangibles will make the difference. Carlson said this group of seniors may have the best chemistry of any class she has coached. The only unknown is court leadership. She’s looking to Hein and Kroeker for that.
“I feel like their experience needs to step up as far as leadership goes,” Carlson said. “I feel that at the first of the year, Jill and Shannon will definitely be the key-not to carry the load, necessarily, in scoring as much as just being the leaders out there, even if it’s done quietly.”
Carlson is quiet about one other possible achievement this season. With a career record of 279-114 and a strong team this season, she has a realistic shot at her 300th win-but it will take another stellar regular season and post-season to do it.
“It’s exciting,” Carlson admitted. “To a lot of coaches, that is a big deal. To me it isn’t necessarily, but it would be neat.”
Carlson knows this is a key season for her program. “Next year” may not be so ripe.
“I have just two juniors out this season,” Carlson said. “They’re doing a good job, and it’s probably frustrating for them sometimes in practice-but it has to only be making them better because they scrimmage against the seniors every day.
“I see some potential in the sophomore class and a lot of potential in the freshman class. But you know, when you have nine good seniors, then your goal is that you want to win, and you want to go as far as you can.”
Seniors: Jenna Jost, Shannon Kroeker, Robyn Penner, Andrea Peachey, Jill Hein, Sara Thiessen, Amber Hefley, Shelby Estelle, Holly Lindsay.
Juniors: Laci Franz, April Funk.
Sophomores: Danielle Goossen, Stephanie King, Alisa Pryor, Danielle Kelley, Katie Fast, Kara Wasemiller.
Freshmen: Marissa Diener, Emily Railsback, Emily Ratzlaff, Sara Buller, Sara Prieb, Amy Duerksen, Rose Vineski, Charity Davis, Sara Hamm, Erin Wiebe, Kirsten Cederberg, Heather Stepanek, Whitney Washmon.