MARSHALL, Ill. —
By Andy Amey
Tribune-Star • Marshall, Ill.
Even though Marshall’s Lions came almost out of nowhere to have the best girls basketball record in the school’s history last winter, the players weren’t all that surprised, a couple of them recalled this week.
The fact that this year’s team has a chance to do even better, despite the graduation of three solid starters from the 25-2 team of a year ago, might be a little more unexpected — or maybe not.
The team’s formula for success remains pretty much the same, after all.
“They work well together as a team,” coach Kathy Miller said this week. “They play aggressive defense, and they’re very unselfish. They just want to win.”
Miller may have made identical statements a year ago. The 2011-2012 Lions were a nicely balanced group with four of their five starters at least 5-foot-10.
“Last year we knew we would be a really strong team,” junior forward Kaydie Grooms remembered, “because we were taller and stronger than everybody else … but [this year] we were losing our two posts [5-10 Emily Bishop and 5-11 Alexis Thompson] and our point guard [5-8 Erika Kuhn].”
The 5-11 Grooms and 5-11 1/2 senior Ariana Kuhn are pretty adaptable, as it turns out, in addition to being the team’s top two scorers a year ago. Joined in the regular lineup this year by 5-9 1/2 junior Abbie Switzer, 5-3 junior Breah Keim, 5-7 junior Tonia Bishop and 5-7 sophomore reserve Cheyenne Thompson, the two returnees have led the Lions to an 18-1 start as they played for the Little Illini Conference Tournament championship late Thursday night.
The new starters haven’t missed a beat, Ariana Kuhn said this week.
“Last year they helped us [in more limited roles],” she pointed out. “They’re excellent players.”
“They were scrimmaging against us last year, every day,” Grooms added, “and every practice was intense, so that really helped.”
Marshall isn’t quite as balanced as it was a year ago, because Grooms — who finished strong to become the team’s leading scorer then — has continued to blossom. She was averaging 21.7 points going into Tuesday’s LIC semifinal game, while adding 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game and blocking 19 shots.
Keim, whose long-range shooting gives the Lions a different dimension, is scoring 10.4 points per game while the wonderfully versatile Ariana Kuhn — who played guard last year, post this season — is at 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds while leading the team in assists (3.6 per game) and blocked shots (27).
As indicated earlier, the team attitude is identical to last year’s, though.
“It’s awesome … being able to have a team this successful and being able to work well together this nicely,” Kuhn said this week.
“These two years have been incredible,” Grooms agreed. “No drama, just good teammates who want to win.”
The scoring explosion, Grooms added, has been almost accidental.
“Going into a game, I don’t feel I need to get 25 points,” she said. “The team just works well together, and [the points] just happen.”
Last year’s Lions lost only to Mt. Carmel, at the Robinson Thanksgiving Tournament, and to perennial power Teutopolis.
The T-town loss, however, was in the regional championship game. Miller’s second Marshall team, in 1989-90, was 20-4 but advanced to sectional play.
This year’s regional will be at Marshall and will include Robinson, Lawrenceville, Newton and Casey. If the Lions can survive that — they beat Newton by four points earlier this season — they could be at the Newton Sectional, and probably see both Mt. Carmel (the only team to beat them this year, by four points) and Teutopolis again.
“I like our draw a lot,” Grooms said. “My main goal is to have us win our regional. I’d be excited to face T-town or Mt. Carmel again.”
“I would like to say we’ll be winning the regional,” Kuhn answered when asked what she saw in her team’s future, “and then go on to the sectional, or even farther.”
Her program’s recent success might continue a while longer, Miller hopes. The current juniors have been playing summer basketball together for almost 10 years now — “since we were as little as you can play,” Grooms said — and both the seventh- and eighth-graders at Marshall have strong teams.
“And I’ve got Dan [Wilson] now, and he’s an excellent assistant coach,” Miller added. “Since he’s joined us, I probably have gotten a lot smarter.”