Twice As Nice for Hillcrest in Columbia

The Hillcrest Lady Hornets use suffocating defensive pressure to force a lot of turnovers, which lead to a lot of easy baskets for the Lady Hornets. (Staff Photo)

It will be twice the fun in Columbia this week for Hillcrest High School, as both the Hornets and Lady Hornets have qualified for the Class 4 Show Me Showdown. The Hornets (18-12) will face Notre Dame (Cape Girardeau (26-4) at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon in one semifinal, while the Lady Hornets (23-7) will play MICDS (25-2) at 6:50 p.m. in a girls semifinal.

“It’s very exciting for our players,” said Hornet head coach Tomas Brock, who is in his first year at the helm. “I’m so proud of the effort these guys have made throughout the year to improve, and now those efforts are being rewarded with an opportunity to play in Columbia.”

“It is very exciting,” echoed Lady Hornet head coach Jeni Hopkins. “We are proud of these ladies and their efforts.  They have worked very hard for this opportunity.”

Hillcrest's Laurnea Jarman (#30) (Staff Photo)

For the Lady Hornets, it was a history-making 64-54 state quarterfinal win over St. Francis Borgia, as that win propelled Hillcrest to its first-ever girls Final Four appearance. The Hornets, who won the 2010 Class 5 state championship and were the Class 4 state runner-up in 2012, beat the #2-ranked team in the state in Rolla. Senior standout Brady Petry weaved through traffic and hit a nifty up-and-under lay-in just prior to the final buzzer to give Hillcrest the 62-61 victory in the state quarterfinals played at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar..

“We had the ball with nine seconds left and had to go the length of the floor,” said Brock, a former Southwest Baptist University standout who had scored many a bucket on the very same floor in which Hillcrest beat Rolla. “Cole Pryor threw a perfect inbounds pass to half-court and we called timeout. In the timeout we set up a very simple inbounds play to get Brady the ball in the middle of the court with a chance to make a play for himself or his teammates, and he did just that.”

Rolla had lost just twice all season, with both losses to Waynesville within the span of a week in late December and early January. The Bulldogs entered the state quarterfinals on a 17-game winning streak, which included an 86-50 rout of Hillcrest on Jan. 13.

“Rolla is a very good team,” said Brock. “They are well coached and have so many weapons on the offensive end. Our guys competed hard from the opening tip, and we were very fortunate to win the game. We felt that if we could keep the game close into the last few minutes, we could make the plays down the stretch that we needed to. We got some breaks and made some shots, and that always helps.

“We didn’t talk much at all about our game from early January,” added Brock. “In fact, I didn’t even watch the film of our first game with Rolla. We knew that we were a much different team than the one that played Rolla early in the season. Our guys belief in each other and the work that they’d put in throughout the season, gave them the confidence to compete with a very good Rolla team.”

Hillcrest's Brady Petry (#24) (Staff Photo)

Petry scored 32 points for the game, with 23 of those coming in the second half. Running mate Lavell Hale poured in 24 points of his own, with 18 first half points to keep the Hornets in it. In all, the duo combined for 56 of Hillcrest’s 62 points.

“We wanted to play harder and outplay them from the start,” said Petry. “Our game plan was to not allow them to have any open shots.”

The Lady Hornets entered their state quarterfinal game with a 22-7 record, with all seven losses coming to state-ranked teams. Hillcrest used its quickness and smothering defensive pressure to force Borgia turnovers, which helped key the Lady Hornet speed game…at least through the first three quarters.

In order to secure the program’s first Final Four berth, though, the Lady Hornets had to earn it at the free throw line. Hillcrest, which never trailed in the game, buried 19-of-24 free throws in the fourth quarter alone to post the 64-54 victory.

“It was a quality win,” said Hopkins of the win over Borgia. “They are a strong team. We are trying to stay focused on one game at a time. It has been an incredible run and we are very grateful for each step of the way.”

Kelsie Cleeton, the Lady Hornets senior All-State standout, led the team with a game-high 28 points, while fellow guard Kaycee Gerald added 20 points of her own. “We wanted it more and were very motivated to get this win,” said Cleeton, who will play next year at College of the Ozarks. “We executed our game plan well.”

Hillcrest's Kelsie Cleeton (with ball) (Staff Photo)

“We came in really prepared,” said Lillian Beam. “We were confident and ready. We have worked hard to get to this point and are excited for this amazing opportunity.”

The turnaround for the Hornets this season has been remarkable. The enigmatic Hornets have about as up-and-down a season as is possible, with mini winning and losing streaks sprinkled throughout the schedule. The same team that lost three in a row in mid-January reeled off seven wins in eight games, with the only loss to state-ranked Nixa. The Hornets followed that up by losing three-of-four to close the regular season, but have now won five in a row heading to Columbia.

“We talk very little about results and try our best to focus on the process of becoming better people, players and teammates,” said Brock. “Our guys belief and commitment to that process has allowed them to exceed others expectations.”

“We want to always play harder than the other team,” said Petry. “Early on we were very young and had no chemistry, but now we have good team chemistry.”

Interestingly, the Hornets were undefeated (12-0) when they had at least one practice before their next game. That is a sign of great coaching, whether the humble Brock wants to acknowledge it or not.

“He is one of us,” said Petry of his first-year coach. “He interacts with us and is always trying to make us better as a person and a player. He has meant a lot and he has been learning with us. He’s new to this program and we are new to his program. We are doing this together.”

“Anytime you go into a new situation, there are always adjustments to make,” said Brock. “I think those adjustments are amplified for a first-year head coach. We have a young team and a young coaching staff, and we have been learning together throughout the season. We aren’t perfect. My players have made mistakes and I’ve certainly made mistakes, but our focus is learning from those mistakes and moving on to the next play.

“Hillcrest has such a great tradition, but the rewarding thing about coaching is that each year you get to see a new group of young men improve and come together as a team,” added Brock. “This team has improved as much as any team I’ve ever been around, and that has allowed them to proudly carry on the Hillcrest tradition.”

Hillcrest's Kaycee Gerald (#11) (Staff Photo)

Petry leads the Hornets at 22.4 points per game, and also grabs a team-high 7.8 rebounds per contest. Hale is the only other Hornet averaging double figures at 11.3 points per outing. According to Brock, the 6-foot-4 junior is the team’s “most improved player, and has been a difference maker for us in the postseason.”

The other Hornet starters include 6-foot-2 sophomore Shahn Clark (7.5 ppg, 3 apg), a very good passer and playmaker, and a pair of freshmen in sharpshooter Cole Pryor, who hits 42 percent of his three-point attempts, and Tim Washington, who averages 8.2 points per game and shoots a blistering 76 percent from the field. Junior Jevazz Podurgiel is high energy guy off the bench for the Hornets.

One safe bet all season long has been that the Lady Hornets would be at a height disadvantage regardless of who they were playing. Of course, Hillcrest’s opponents have often been at a speed disadvantage to the Lady Hornets, who use harassing ball pressure to force turnovers and speed up the tempo.

Kelsie Cleeton, a senior, is certainly the Lady Hornets’ headliner and best player, but is far from a one-player show. Gerald has had a solid junior campaign, and has helped Cleeton with the scoring load.

Cleeton actually has a non-identical twin sister, Kaelyn Cleeton, whose game is also not identical to her sister’s. Kelsie, who is averaging over 20 points per contest, can hit an outside jump shot (with her tongue hanging out…always!) or get to the rim off the bounce for and-1 opportunities. Kaelyn, on the other hand, is content to roam the three-point line awaiting a kick out from her sister or Gerald for an open bomb. Kaelyn also is one of the team’s best rebounders.

The rest of the Lady Hornet rotation includes Beam, a 5-foot-7 senior, as well as senior Haley Harrison, and juniors Mikhala McCullough, Laurnea Jarman, and Jordan Pryor.

“They are special,” said Hopkins of her Lady Hornets. “They are dedicated, have excellent team chemistry and work very hard on their skills. They were prepared in middle school and continued to have unmatched dedication throughout high school. This is a group that gets along well and genuinely enjoys being with each other.  It is a dream team to coach, and we are so grateful for this group and their success.”

“We work well together and have been close since day one,” said Pryor.

“We have great team chemistry and get along well,” said McCullough. “We believe in each other.”

“We have worked hard every day and pushed each other, literally and figuratively, every day,” said Kelsie Cleeton, who has been known to give her twin sister a tongue lashing on the court. “We believed from the beginning that we could do it. Going to State means a lot. We have played together for so long and we are making history at our school.”

“We have heard from others that it was a difficult task that just gave us the motivation and determination to make it happen,” said Jarman of the Final Four run.

The Hornets will be facing a tough task in trying to beat a Notre Dame team that has only lost one game since Christmas. The Bulldogs, led by first-year head coach and Notre Dame alum Paul Unterreiner, are returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2008, when Notre Dame won a Class 4 state championship.

Although the Bulldogs have a couple of would-be starters out with ACL injuries in Derek Hulshof and Grant Ressel, Notre Dame features a balanced attack in which any one of a handful of players can lead the team on a given night. Senior Quinn Poythress, a 6-foot-7 monster in the middle, is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer and best player, while fellow senior Tanner Shively is averaging 13 points per game. Sophomore guard Blake Bauwens (9.6 ppg) and senior Dean Crippen (8.3 ppg) are capable scorers, while senior Thomas Himmelberg and junior guard Ross Essner play important roles for the Bulldogs.

“Notre Dame is a very good team,” said Brock. “There is a reason that they’ve won 26 games. They are experienced, deep and have good size. They’re well coached and play very hard. We will have our hands full. We try to simplify the game as much as possible for our players, and will have a simple game plan on Thursday. If we will limit turnovers, defend and rebound, then we’ll have a chance.”

Hillcrest's Kaelyn Cleeton (with ball) (Staff Photo)

“We feel like we deserved this chance,” said Petry. “No one works harder than us. We have to play harder than Notre Dame from the beginning to end and execute.”

The Lady Hornets will also have their hands full with MICDS, who will also be making its State debut Thursday night. MICDS will carry a 16-game winning streak into the state semifinals, which includes the lady Rams first-ever victories beyond the district tournament.

The Lady Rams feature a pair of 16-points per game scorers in juniors Rachel Thompson (16.7 ppg) and Abigail O’Keefe (16.6), who has hit over 60 three-pointers this season and shoots better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Maya Howard, a 5-foot-7 senior guard, averages 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game.

“We are just excited to play and at this time of year it is anybody’s game,” said Pryor. “Every game is a chance to show what you can do.”

“The key for us will be execution,” said Kaelyn Cleeton. “We need to stick to our game plan and play smart. Just play our game.”

As Brock wraps up his inaugural season on the bench at Hillcrest, he is in the unique position of having a wealth of knowledge and experience at his disposal. Brock’s father is Skip Brock, who just finished his first season as the boys head basketball coach at Carl Junction. Skip guided Mt. Vernon to multiple Final Four appearances, though, prior to taking the job at Carl Junction.

“I’m constantly seeking advice from my dad, not just on basketball, but about life,” said Tomas. “Our trip to Columbia will be no exception. It’s such a valuable resource to have one of the best basketball coaches in the state of Missouri just a phone call away. It’s also been very special for me to get to share this exciting ride with my dad.”

Hillcrest's Mikhala McCullough (shooting) (Staff Photo)

Hillcrest is also sharing this unique “double dip” trip to State with Bolivar, as the Liberators will also be taking both their boys and girls teams to State this weekend. It says a lot about the state of basketball in the region that half the Final Four field in Columbia hails from the Ozarks.

“I’m very excited for (Bolivar head) Coach (Robby) Hoegh and the Liberators,” said Tomas. “The community of Bolivar has a special place in my heart because of the time I spent at SBU. Bolivar has very good players and Robby has done a great job in bringing them together. My hope is to meet the Liberators in the championship. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“It shows how good and competitive our region is and that Southwest Missouri teams succeed throughout the season,” said Petry.

“We take it seriously,” said Harrison of the state of basketball in this area. “It is one of the toughest regions in the state. It is a great place to play and is competitive. It prepares us well.”

Both the Hornets and Lady Hornets are heading to Columbia with a world of confidence. Don’t let the Hornets’ ho-hum 18-12 record or the height-challenged Lady Hornet line-up fool you. Both teams are supremely confident and playing their best basketball of the season.

“We have always heard of ‘Survive and Advance,’ but we have been trying to say ‘Kill and Advance,’” said Harrison.

If both Hillcrest teams are playing for state championships come Saturday? That would be killer!

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