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Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

Hawks boys quietly chug into contention again

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OLATHE HOOPS TEAMS IN THE TITLE HUNT There is no shortage of contenders for the Sunflower League title among Olathe’s high school basketball teams. In fact, the boys’ and girls’ squads at Olathe East, Olathe Northwest and Olathe South all figure to have significant say in determining which team ultimately wears the crowns at the end of February. Here’s a look at the teams (indicated records are through Thursday): Olathe East boys Coach: Jim Super Record: 7-2 Best win: 74-69 vs. St. Joe Central (Jan. 19) Postseason outlook: Led by Austin Brown, the Hawks are a good rebounding team and have plenty of scorers. Harnessing athletic swingman Blaine Miller’s talent at both ends and the continued progression of the guards will determine how far the Hawks go. Finished third in Kansas 6A last year. Olathe East girls Coach: Clint Evans Record: 9-1 Best win: 31-26 vs. Blue Valley (Dec. 8) Postseason outlook: Some contend that the Hawks win ugly, but the bottom line is that the Hawks win. Evans’ girls took out Blue Valley, Bishop Miege, Raytown and BV North among the season’s first 10 games. Finished third in Kansas 6A last season. Olathe Northwest boys Coach: Mike Grove Record: 9-0 Best win: 41-22 vs. Rockhurst (Dec. 17) Postseason outlook: Shavon Shields is the engine that propels the Ravens. A slasher with an uncanny ability to finish at the rim, Shields, whose father is Chiefs All-Pro Will Shields, signed with Nebraska. Willie Cauley, a 6-foot-11 center, is a strong defensive presence in the paint, while Trey Bales, who hit five three-pointers in Thursday’s win at Valley Center, is a tremendous perimeter threat. Olathe Northwest girls Coach: Joel Branstrom Record: 8-0 Best win: 52-47 vs. Blue Springs (Dec. 16) Postseason outlook: The Ravens are ranked No. 1 in the state by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association and, thus, are the current favorites to claim the Kansas 6A crown. Junior Michaela Crall is among the top little-known talents in the paint in Kansas, but people will know about her soon enough. Olathe South boys Coach: Jim Carr Record: 8-1 Best win: 61-60 vs. Sunrise Christian (Dec. 8) Postseason outlook: The Falcons have good ball-handlers, including Noah Knight, excellent sharpshooters like David Nelson, rock-solid perimeter defenders, including Drew Johnson, and a 6-foot-8 triple threat (scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking) in the paint. Not a bad recipe for success. Olathe South girls Coach: Steve Ingram Record: 9-0 Best win: 57-42 vs. Olathe East (Dec. 9) Postseason outlook: The Falcons always seem to be in the discussion of the top teams in the state and this season is no different. Point guard Megan Balcom leads the way, while Bailey Rinehart, Alex Hugo and freshman sensation Kylee Kopatich provide scoring punch. Reached the Kansas 6A state tourney for the seventh straight season last year.

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For the fourth time in the last five seasons, Olathe East’s boys reached the championship game at the C.W. Stessman Invitational with a stirring semifinal victory against St. Joseph Central on Thursday in Liberty.

That is a good sign for this season’s Hawks as Liberty High School’s annual midseason boys basketball battle royale has been a springboard to three Sunflower League titles and three Kansas 6A state tournament appearances during the last four seasons.

“Once we all mesh, I think a return to state is likely,” East senior forward Austin Brown said. “We’ve had some success here at this tournament and have used that to build momentum the last couple years. We like to represent Kansas and the quality of teams helps us out a lot.”

As much as any season, the Hawks, 7-2, might have needed the midseason boost the C.W. Stessman provides this year.

“The reason we’re in this tournament is the quality of the competition and we’ve had two really close games against really good teams,” East coach Jim Super said. “It only helps us. We play against quick teams and teams that are going to press us a little bit and push us to the edge. If we can respond, that’s how you get better.”

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Hawks need to face such tests and battle through them.

Last season, East had the benefit of putting the ball in the hands of cool and collected DiRenna Award winner Tyler Kalinoski in critical situations, but with Kalinoski now at Davidson the new-look backcourt has been enduring on-the-job training.

“Our weakness right now is probably handling pressure and finishing games,” junior guard Kyle Smith said. “We’ve tried to lose a few games lately when we had eight- to 10-point leads and let the other team get back within two or three points. But we’ve figured out ways to win, which has helped our backcourt gain confidence.”

The Hawks started the season with two losses in the first three games but have ripped off six wins in a row before Friday’s title tilt against Liberty North.

“We’ve had to be patient, because we knew it would take some time,” Super said. “We lost all our guards who handled the ball for us from last year, so really we’ve got four new guards handling the ball, but they have made incredible improvement as far as how they operate and manage the team. They have developed poise – not as much poise as we need yet, but we’ve got some more season to go and I believe this group will get there.”

Besides, dig a little deeper into those two early defeats – a 70-60 season-opening loss at Blue Valley North, 9-0, and a 52-37 loss in the Ray-Pec Tournament against Lee’s Summit West, 15-0 – and it becomes clear that the Hawks really haven’t thrown in many clunkers this season.

“We took a lot of crap for losing two games early,” Smith said. “People didn’t realize how good Blue Valley North and Lee’s Summit West, I guess, so I think people underestimated us when we lost those games.”

Of course, the detractors only fuel East even more.

“I feel like we are definitely underrated,” Brown said. “Since those early-season losses, nobody gives us respect for the things we’re doing now and how we’re getting better.”

But rest assured, the Hawks are progressing quite nicely and once again could be a very real threat to win the Sunflower League and return to state, where the program claimed third place last season.

“I think we have just as much potential, if not more, than we had last year,” Super said. “The progress we’re making as a team is a testament to that. As long as they’re going to keep working hard, as long as they’re going to continue to buy, as long as we’re going to continue to execute and defend and support one another, we’re going to be a quality team.”

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