Eck sisters, key 3s lead Ellis girls to sub-state finals
WaKEENEY, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Third-year coach Elle Stein has continued to build the Ellis girls’ basketball program. Ellis finished 10-12 and 10-11 the last two seasons, though did not defeat Smith Center nor reach a sub-state championship game either year. On Jan. 8, Ellis earned a two-point win versus the Lady Red and ended a five-game losing streak in the series.
On Friday, Ellis pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 51-46 victory against Smith Center in the Class 2A sub-state semifinals at WaKeeney-Trego Community High School. After the customary postgame wave to SC, Ellis let out a celebratory yell on the court.
Then, they went out of the gym, through the Trego lunchroom area, down a ramp and into the locker room adjacent to WaKeeney’s old gymnasium. Once inside, the team delivered another huge scream that was easily heard well outside the locker room. Stein said the team has enjoyed such moments after the “big ones.”
“Happy for each other,” Stein said. “And happy to be there, and they were just very, very excited, and they should be.”
The win vaulted Ellis to 14-8. Ellis is into its first sub-state championship game since ’16. Stein was a former Spearville all-state standout and key Fort Hays player before she took over for longtime coach Perry Mick at Ellis.
“This is what we have been building towards and working towards,” Stein said. “We are one game away, so be pumped and be happy about it, because you did this – now let’s go.”
The Railroaders, paced by senior Grace Eck and her sister, sophomore Emily, broke a 35-35 tie early in the fourth quarter with a 7-2 run.
“We just played really well together,” Emily said. “We played as a family. We knew what we needed to do to beat them.”
Grace, a Fort Hays signing with more than 1,400 career points, has averaged just under 20 a game this winter. Emily has delivered 10 per contest. They both scored 16. Grace finished with five assists, Emily three. They come from a highly athletic line of Ecks, and their father, Mark, is Ellis’ boys coach.
“As a leader of the team, you have to know like what kind of setting you are in,” Emily said. “You have to know when you need to be calm, when to support other girls and build them up. Be positive, and when to speed up the game and slow it down. A lot of it comes from just having my sister being a leader. She has taught me a lot, along with my dad.”
On Thursday, Ellis boys also qualified for Saturday’s sub-state title game against Hoxie, undefeated at 22-0 and ranked No. 1 in 2A. Ellis girls will face WaKeeney (19-3) in the title. The Railers fell, 62-60, to Trego in double overtime on Feb. 5. Boys tip at 2 p.m., girls at 5 p.m.
“We just have to come in ready to play,” Emily said.
Smith Center, with zero seniors on varsity, has routinely played four highly talented freshmen, though Tinley Rentschler has missed the last several contests. SC finished 16-6 and won the Mid-Continent League midseason tournament shortly after the regular season loss to Ellis. Junior Tallon Rentschler paced SC with 17 points a contest and led the Lady Red with 12.
However, she, SC freshman point guard Camryn Hutchinson and Grace Eck battled foul trouble. Rentschler fouled out with 2:43 remaining and Ellis up 46-43. Hutchinson fouled out in the final seconds. Emily called Rentschler’s fifth foul “big.”
Eck picked up her third foul with 2:46 remaining in the third, though managed to stay in. Ellis, with a thin bench, was getting beat off drives and started to switch ball screens.
“We couldn’t afford to get in more foul trouble,” Stein said. “So we went to switching. This is a very tough group of girls, and they really play hard. I am really proud of them, and they have come a long way since we first started, so it’s really cool to see how much of a better team we have become.”
Smith Center led 12-10 after the first quarter. Rentschler missed the final 4:44 of the first half. When she went out, the game was tied at 14. SC bumped the lead to 23-16 with 1:31 left before intermission. Eck hit two free throws. Then, junior Maddy Guffey sank a trey. Just before the buzzer, senior Abby North hoisted a guarded 3 from the top of the arc that went in. Both were rare treys.
“It’s just like, ‘Wow,’” Emily said. “It’s like, ‘We are so proud of you for how hard you have worked this season.’”
Entering the contest, Guffey had 34 points all season, including 2 of 6 on treys. North, a multi-year post starter, was 0 of 1 from 3s.
“Guffey is actually a pretty good shooter,” Stein said. “If she is open, she will take the 3, and I am fine with that. Abby wants to shoot 3s, and if she is open, I will let her, but when she let go of that, there was no way I thought it was going in. … I thought she shot it from the hip, but I was pumped for her. I mean, that was an awesome shot and that was a great momentum shift for us.”
Ellis, paced by the Ecks and strong defense, never trailed again. SC committed 17 turnovers in the final three quarters. After SC tied the game at 35, the Ecks worked together on a basket. Grace ran across the lane to the middle right block and received a pass. She immediately turned and bounced a pass to her sister on the left low block.
“We have done it on the driveway,” Emily said. “It’s definitely part of knowing what to do, having that mindset of being able to read each other’s minds.”
Grace sealed the win with three free throws. After the locker room celebration, the two sisters came out of the locker room and met their large family, including their father. In the middle of the joy, Emily received out and gave her sister a fist pump.
“Honestly, it’s amazing,” Emily said. “I love it. We always know what each other is going to do. We know what to do, when to do it. I am definitely going to miss her next year.”
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