CENTRAL POINT — Successful basketball seasons typically hinge on a few pivotal moments.
It may be an irritating loss that sparks a renewed focus, or beating a worthy opponent few would have predicted.
For the Crater girls basketball team, it seems a little of both might be what responsible should the Comets return to the Class 5A state tournament.
Last Tuesday, Crater secured its marquee win of the season with a determined effort in a 55-53 overtime victory over second-ranked Churchill.
That came on the heels of a disappointing home loss to No. 4 Springfield, 52-40 on Jan. 11, and showed considerable growth and the caliber of team the Comets believe they can be in the 5A title chase.
For a look at Crater's steadfast OT win over Churchill, click below
“We were just ready to be there, it felt different from when we lost to Springfield,” said Crater guard Sydney Gray, one of four seniors. “I think, mentally, everybody was just prepared for it and we all just stuck together and we fed off each other’s energy. We always kept a high even when they went on runs and kept our energy up.”
That upbeat spirit wasn’t even dampened by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Churchill freshman Danika Starr that forced the Midwestern League game into overtime.
“I’ve seen a lot of games and been in a lot of games where somebody hits a shot to go into overtime and it’s a backbreaker and then the team just can’t get over it,” said Crater head coach Scott Dippel.
To the Comets’ credit, that wasn’t the case for them. With Gray and senior Maya Van Hook leading the way, Crater battled its way back into the advantage and never let up regardless of how the Lancers countered.
Van Hook opened the extra session with a three-point play and was 3-for-3 from the foul line in overtime, while Gray initiated the offense and converted 5 of 8 free throws in the final period to go with some clutch defense.
“That showed the maturity of the team for us, for sure,” said Dippel. “To be able to go and get a three-point play on an isolation play to start overtime, that really showed me that they were saying the game isn’t over and we’re not giving up.”
Van Hook finished with 21 points and seven rebounds that night, while Gray had 11 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots — including one in the final second to prevent a go-ahead score by Churchill.
“There was something in both of them that I’ve seen enough times, and not just them but in all the kids, that we knew what was working for us and they both wanted to be a part of it,” said Dippel. “If you look at the overtime period, they were so aggressive and took advantage of what they got, for sure.”
The highlight moments of the night may have belonged to Gray and Van Hook, but they were just playing their part in what has been an effectively balanced attack thus far for the Comets (14-3, 7-1 MWL).
The 5-foot-9 Gray is averaging 10.9 points, 4.8 rbounds, 2.6 steals and 1.9 assists per game, but five Comets average around five points per game and four pull down around four rebounds per game.
Van Hook, at 5-7, averages 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, with fellow seniors Eliza Idiart (8.3 points) and Nehkyah Ellis (5.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals) helping set the tone for a squad that has melded all classes together without issue.
Van Hook said Crater’s seniors have tried to foster a bond with the underclassmen and set a standard where hard work equates into growth for everyone.
“At the end of the day, you play basketball to have fun but you still have to work,” she said. “You still want to win and you still have to play hard to do that, and I think that’s the message we’re trying to preach to everybody.”
Freshman McKenzie Hirsch (4.8 points, 4.1 rebounds) and junior Averi Young (4.2 points, 3.7 rebounds) have been instrumental among the younger group, with junior Presley Robison knocking down a key fourth-quarter 3-pointer against Churchill and providing stout defense to complement the Comet core group.
Dippel has no problem calling on anyone to contribute on the 14-strong varsity roster.
“I think we all just believe in each other and know that we’re all capable of scoring a lot of points so it really doesn’t matter who it is getting the shots or whatever,” said Gray. “When someone’s hot, that’s the person we feed. I don’t think we have really big egos or anything. We all kind of know what everyone is capable of and individually what we’re capable of so we just try to feed into those skills.”
Seeing his players completely buy into that mindset not only makes Dippel proud, it’s also what helps make Crater so successful.
“That’s the key to high school basketball, I think,” said Dippel. “If you can get a balanced team and you can do a lot of things (with your versatility), you can be really successful. I think that’s the reason we were able to make adjustments in the Churchill game. We saw that we needed to play a certain style and I was proud of how they adjusted.”
That balance and versatility, however, are not by accident and didn’t happen overnight. It stems from dedication on days that don’t include fans in the stands and pep bands energizing their legs.
“Every day, every practice our starters are earning their spot,” said Van Hook, “and the people that come in first off the bench are always earning it. It’s very competitive but we’re still a team, and I think that’s how we’ve become so balanced because we’re all pushing for that ultimate goal.”
Crater went 0-2 at last year’s state tournament after entering with a 21-5 record, and many of this year’s regulars were also key figures in 2017-18.
Overall, the Comet girls boast eight state trophies, finishing as state runner-up in 1998, 2000 and 2001 at the state’s highest classification during their heyday.
Getting back to the state tournament is a priority, but it hasn’t prevented the team from enjoying the journey — as last Tuesday’s gleeful race into each other’s arms showed following Crater’s upset victory.
“It’s been fun to play and be on a roll but also to play with some of my best friends,” said Van Hook. “I’m not sure I could ask for much more.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry