By Tom Westerholm
Kent City girls basketball team will travel to Big Rapids on Thursday for a high-powered Central State Activities Association showdown between two teams that are very familiar with one another.
Here’s everything you need to know.
DATE & TIME
Thursday, Feb. 17 – Kent City @ Big Rapids, 7 p.m.
Kent City: 18-3 overall, 9-1 in the CSAA conference.
The Eagles started the season 1-2 with a pair of difficult non-conference losses to Muskegon and Lowell – losses that coach Aleah Holcomb felt were “eye-opening” for her team.
“We are used to winning a lot of games, at least in the past, so I think this year, starting out with that big loss to Lowell … pushed us forward,” Holcomb said. “We really have to work harder and know what we need to accomplish to get to that next level.”
The Eagles responded well. They rattled off 10 consecutive wins before a hard-fought loss to Big Rapids snapped their streak. Kent City then won its last seven games, including Tuesday’s conference tournament victory against Morley Stanwood.
“Last year, we had 26 wins and then lost the big one in the end,” Holcomb said, referencing Kent City’s narrow 54-50 loss to Ypsilanti Arbor Prep in the state championship. “So we are 17-3 right now, and then we dropped one to Big Rapids. “We’re excited to have the opportunity to play them again.”
Big Rapids: 19-2 overall, 10-0 in the CSAA conference
Like Kent City, Big Rapids scheduled a couple of difficult non-conference opponents, which proved to be their only losses this season – one each to Covenant Christian and Pewamo-Westphalia.
“We want to make sure we schedule those non-conference games that are going to challenge us, and they did, and we lost both of them by a close margin, but I think we learned a lot from both of them,” Big Rapids coach Jessica Haist said. “So that was kind of the purpose of them.”
Haist credits her team’s record to their grit.
“They fight hard, they play hard,” Haist said. “We aren’t always the best basketball team on the court, but we’re going to be tough competitors and the kids don’t give up. I have a couple kids that do whatever it takes to win. They are those good, strong team leaders, so that is kind of what has led our team this season.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Lexie Bowers – 19.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 steals, 4 assists per game
Madelyn Geers – 16.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 steals per game
Bowers, a senior committed to play basketball at Northwood in December, is a well-rounded two-way threat who can do a little bit of everything as a scorer.
“She can score inside, she’s a great driver, and she’s shooting 30 percent from the 3-point line,” Holcomb said. “So she’s just really an all-around threat.”
Geers, meanwhile, made visits to University of Detroit-Mercy and Niagara University before the season and has been entertaining Division I offers. The junior scored her 1,000th point at Kent City in Tuesday’s win.
“As a junior to be in the 1,000-point club at Kent City is a huge honor,” Holcomb said. “And she’s not really stat driven, so for her, it’s not this, ‘I have to be in this club.’ It’s just that all the work and effort she has put in has gotten her into that club.”
Rylie Haist – 12 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals per game
Hanna Smith – Stats unavailable.
Haist and Smith are captains for the Cardinals, part of an eight-person senior class that has been playing basketball together for a long time.
“Three of these seniors have played on varsity for 4 years, so this is their fourth year there,” Jessica Haist said. “And then the other ones have been there for three years. So we are pretty experienced, their chemistry is pretty strong on the court, and I think that makes a pretty big difference.”
Rylie Haist has offers to play both basketball and softball collegiately, while Smith is committed to Northwood University to play softball. Smith is one of several Cardinals players committed to play collegiate sports other than basketball.
“I’m not looking at a team full of basketball players,” Jessica Haist said. “We just have a couple girls where that’s probably their primary, but they are just competitors and they do what they need to do. But it’s definitely not their No. 1, if you will, for most of them.”
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
- How will Kent City deal with Big Rapids’ defense?
The first time the two teams met, Kent City struggled enormously from 3-point range, partly because of Big Rapids’ 1-3-1 zone, according to Holcomb.
“They closed out really well on our 3-point shots, and I think that made us more hesitant than normal to shoot our 3s,” Holcomb said. “We also weren’t making the extra pass that we should have been making to have a more open shot, so their defense was definitely a struggle for us, but we’ve been working on it, and I think we’ll be ready.”
Those shooting struggles, however, allowed Big Rapids to stay in a consistent half-court defense throughout the game.
“We had a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, and we did not leave Plan A,” Haist said. “We locked in and stayed there the whole game. We didn’t press at all, we just played good half-court defense. So that would be our game plan again on Thursday, and if we have to go to something different we will, but we’ll start the same way we ended.”
- Can Big Rapids’ balance overcome Kent City’s star power?
For the Cardinals, part of their success lies in their depth – having a lot of solid players makes it harder for a defense to lock onto one or two players defensively.
“Do I have kids who could score 25 or 30? Absolutely,” Haist said. “ … But they don’t need to, and we instead have 2-3 girls in double figures. And I feel like that makes us a little harder to prepare for because on a given night, one of those five kids on the floor could have double figures when you haven’t seen that in the last couple games.”
Kent City, meanwhile, has significant star power in Bowers and Geers, and Geers in particular still has room to grow – Holcomb noted that the junior has a “great” 3-point shot that she still hasn’t revealed consistently yet.
“They are both leaders on our team, they are super competitive and they push us to do what’s needed to win games, and they are both very talented,” Holcomb said. “ … They are both just really great players.”
- Is Kent City ramping up for another deep playoff run?
Bowers and Geers both have an extensive history of big games under their belts, and after coming up empty in back-to-back trips to the state finals, Holcomb believes Kent City is mentally ready for the postseason.
“This conference tournament that we have is really going to show what we’ve been working on and where we are at,” Holcomb said. “It’s great to have two challenging games before we step into the tournament. I think that’s going to push us to the next level that we need to be at.”