VERDIGRIS – Even before his team received an invitation, the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic was a holiday tradition for Verdigris coach Gary Kennimer.

“This is my 21st year as a coach, and I’ve attended it every year,” said Kennimer, whose  club -- 3-4 after opening the season ranked in the top five in rugged Class 3A – will meet Class A No. 4 Okarche in the Mid-America opener at 3 p.m. Thursday at East Central University’s Kerr Activities Center.  “To me, it’s just part of our Christmas plans every year.  To get to play in it makes it that much sweeter for me this year.

“Kids these days don’t understand how much prestige the Mid-America has,” he said.  “As a coach, I can’t wait to get there.  I’m just beside myself that we got an invitation.”

A state tournament team last year in 3A (the Lady Cardinals lost to Bethel in the first round after finishing the regular season 20-0) and a surprising state finalist in 2006, Verdigris has struggled, especially offensively, through the first month of the 2007-2008 campaign, despite returning four starters.  Kennimer said facing three of Oklahoma’s best girls basketball teams in three days in Ada may or may not be a cure for what’s been ailing his veteran club.

“I think the tournament is probably coming at a good time, because we know how hard and how well we’re going to have to compete there,” he said.  “If we had a couple of easy games coming up, it might be harder for us to keep our intensity.

“It would be nice to have three or four easy games in a row, but these games should toughen us up,” Kennimer added.  “We won’t have the record we had last year, but we’ll be battle-tested heading into the second half of the season.”

Kennimer said his team’s early-season struggles can be traced to an offense that simply hasn’t found its rhythm yet and a brutal schedule that has had the Lady Cardinals face (and lose to) 3A No. 1 Sequoyah-Tahlequah, 4A No. 1 Fort Gibson, Oologah and Berryhill.

“We blew double-digit leads twice (including one in a 53-47 loss to Berryhill Tuesday night),” Kennimer said. “We’re not playing very smart with the lead, which is hurting us more than anything.

“It’s like anything else — when you’re scoring points, other things take care of themselves,” he added. “It seems like when we struggle scoring we struggle a little bit defensively. We know we can play with anybody in the state. Right now, we’re just searching for one of those big wins and some confidence.”

Kennimer said he is hoping history can repeat itself with his current squad, which, so far, is having a season reminiscent of the 2005-2006 Lady Cardinals, who struggled early before reeling off a long winning streak that propelled them to the 3A title game.

“That year resembles what we’re going through right now,” Kennimer explained.  “We went into the Christmas break around .500 and got beat in a semifinal game in a tournament right after Christmas, then we won 19 in a row. 

“I see a lot of similarities right now,” he added. “I hope the end is the same.”

The Lady Cardinals are led by junior Cassie Clarke, a 5-10 forward who averaged a double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds) as a sophomore and has been conference MVP the past two seasons. 

“She’s a great shooter — she has unlimited range and gets to the basket well,” Kennimer said of Clarke, who is averaging 20 points and eight rebounds through seven games this season. “She passes the ball well, and she isn’t afraid to give it up. Sometimes she gets a little too unselfish. She’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor and gets to the free throw line a lot.”

The Verdigris backcourt is manned by senior point guard Kait Heskett (“possibly the best athlete on our team…versatile and one of our best defenders”), a four-year starter averaging about 10 points per game, and senior Meg Heskett (“a really good 3-point shooter”), a 3-year starter averaging seven points per game.

Julia Mitchell, a six-foot sophomore Kennimer called “a work in progress” is the team’s leading rebounder (10 per game) and averages five points and two blocks per contest. 

“If she gains a little more strength, she’s going to be tough to deal with inside,” Kennimer said of Mitchell, who started as a freshman. “I think her confidence is building.  We need her to take on more of a scoring role, and she’s settling into that.”

Kennimer’s only new starter from a year ago is Andi Nichols, a senior he calls “a big, physical, strong presence”.

“Andi played off the bench for us last year,” Kennimer said. “She’s probably our most physical player, and she’s a pretty good shooter from 15 feet on in.”

Although sophomores Mallary Schaub and Amanda Stout aren’t big, Kennimer said both give the Lady Cardinals a big spark off the bench.

“They’re both Energizer bunnies,” he explained. “They’re both about 5-4 and athletic. They play hard, they’re capable of scoring a little bit, and they both play defense. They always give us a shot in the arm when they come on the floor.”

Under Kennimer, the Verdigris girls basketball program has made huge strides over the past three seasons, winning 70 games and reaching the state tournament the last two seasons for the first time in school history.

“We’ve kind of come from being a doormat to being one of the best teams in our area,” he said. “A lot of teams around here judge their seasons from playing Verdigris. We see every team’s best ballgame because we’re the standard other people are judging themselves by.”

In Okarche, Verdigris will be meeting a team representing a school with a long and proud girls basketball tradition, and with a win the Lady Cardinals could advance to a showdown with the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Class A No. 1 Preston (which plays Class B No. 1 Kiowa in the first round).  Kennimer said his club will have to be ready for a battle every night.

“I don’t a lot about Okarche, but I know they have a good ball club and they’ve had some success,” he said. “We’ve seen Preston, and they’re so big and athletic that they’re pretty scary. You have to come ready to play every night or you’ll get embarrassed.”

      

 “We blew double-digit leads twice (including one in a 53-47 loss to Berryhill Tuesday night),” Kennimer said. “We’re not playing very smart with the lead, which is hurting us more than anything.

“It’s like anything else — when you’re scoring points, other things take care of themselves,” he added. “It seems like when we struggle scoring we struggle a little bit defensively. We know we can play with anybody in the state. Right now, we’re just searching for one of those big wins and some confidence.”

Kennimer said he is hoping history can repeat itself with his current squad, which, so far, is having a season reminiscent of the 2005-2006 Lady Cardinals, who struggled early before reeling off a long winning streak that propelled them to the 3A title game.

“That year resembles what we’re going through right now,” Kennimer explained.  “We went into the Christmas break around .500 and got beat in a semifinal game in a tournament right after Christmas, then we won 19 in a row. 

“I see a lot of similarities right now,” he added. “I hope the end is the same.”

The Lady Cardinals are led by junior Cassie Clarke, a 5-10 forward who averaged a double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds) as a sophomore and has been conference MVP the past two seasons. 

“She’s a great shooter — she has unlimited range and gets to the basket well,” Kennimer said of Clarke, who is averaging 20 points and eight rebounds through seven games this season. “She passes the ball well, and she isn’t afraid to give it up. Sometimes she gets a little too unselfish. She’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor and gets to the free throw line a lot.”

The Verdigris backcourt is manned by senior point guard Kait Heskett (“possibly the best athlete on our team…versatile and one of our best defenders”), a four-year starter averaging about 10 points per game, and senior Meg Heskett (“a really good 3-point shooter”), a 3-year starter averaging seven points per game.

Julia Mitchell, a six-foot sophomore Kennimer called “a work in progress” is the team’s leading rebounder (10 per game) and averages five points and two blocks per contest. 

“If she gains a little more strength, she’s going to be tough to deal with inside,” Kennimer said of Mitchell, who started as a freshman. “I think her confidence is building.  We need her to take on more of a scoring role, and she’s settling into that.”

Kennimer’s only new starter from a year ago is Andi Nichols, a senior he calls “a big, physical, strong presence”.

“Andi played off the bench for us last year,” Kennimer said. “She’s probably our most physical player, and she’s a pretty good shooter from 15 feet on in.”

Although sophomores Mallary Schaub and Amanda Stout aren’t big, Kennimer said both give the Lady Cardinals a big spark off the bench.

“They’re both Energizer bunnies,” he explained. “They’re both about 5-4 and athletic. They play hard, they’re capable of scoring a little bit, and they both play defense. They always give us a shot in the arm when they come on the floor.”

Under Kennimer, the Verdigris girls basketball program has made huge strides over the past three seasons, winning 70 games and reaching the state tournament the last two seasons for the first time in school history.

“We’ve kind of come from being a doormat to being one of the best teams in our area,” he said. “A lot of teams around here judge their seasons from playing Verdigris. We see every team’s best ballgame because we’re the standard other people are judging themselves by.”

In Okarche, Verdigris will be meeting a team representing a school with a long and proud girls basketball tradition, and with a win the Lady Cardinals could advance to a showdown with the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Class A No. 1 Preston (which plays Class B No. 1 Kiowa in the first round).  Kennimer said his club will have to be ready for a battle every night.

“I don’t a lot about Okarche, but I know they have a good ball club and they’ve had some success,” he said. “We’ve seen Preston, and they’re so big and athletic that they’re pretty scary. You have to come ready to play every night or you’ll get embarrassed.”

      

 

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