OTIS, Kan. - La Crosse’s starting five features four seniors: Hunter Morgan, Blake Herrman, Kaden Depperschmidt, Keldon Day and junior Blake Pierce. Day and Depperschmidt are the tallest at 6-foot-2, while the trio is all under six-foot.
Additionally, 5-8 senior Michael Showalter and 5-9 junior Chase Schmidt, brother of second-year head coach Kyle Schmidt, are key players off the bench. The rotation has limited height and battled injury, though has yielded significant improvement from last year, notably on 3-point shooting.
On Monday, La Crosse continued its massive turnaround with a 68-31 road win against Rush County rival Otis-Bison. The game featured a running clock in the fourth quarter. The Leopards again had key contributions throughout its lineup and improved to 15-4. Last year, La Crosse finished 4-17.
“We get a lot from the community members,” Herrman said. “They keep coming out to support us, and it’s just an amazing feeling with how good we are doing this year.”
Morgan finished with 20 points, including six treys. He added six rebounds and three steals.
Herrman tallied seven points and nine assists and a pair of steals. Day tallied 17 points and four rebounds. Overall, La Crosse shot 54 percent from the field, including 7 of 15 from beyond the arc. The Leopards set a season high for points.
“It just comes down to our senior leadership,” coach Schmidt said. “They trust themselves, they trust each other.”
The Leopards, which have had its full roster for just five games, have already clinched their first winning season since a 13-9 record in 2013-14. On Tuesday, La Crosse finishes the regular season at Stockton. Herrman said the team has checked out the postseason standings.
La Crosse, which is unranked in 1A, leads the Central Plains regional in victories and has a strong chance to make the state tournament for the first time since 1990-91.
“Yeah, we have looked up to the future, but really all we are worried about is the next game and winning the next game to get there first,” he said.
The foundation for the turnaround started in the summer, along with work outside of normal practice time. Schmidt, a Victoria graduate, is in his third year at the school and second as head coach.
“He’s a very personable guy,” Herrman said. “He has a lot of fire to him, so he always wants to win. He hates losing, and that’s what the main key is.”
Last year’s squad had just one senior, averaged just 42 points a game and ended the winter with seven straight losses. In the summer, Schmidt saw his team work hard and have success toward the latter part.
“I knew if we were able to play at that level and continue to get better, that we would have a chance to do something pretty fun this year,” he said. “And our goal always was to really improve from last year, and we are working toward our team goal, and playing really well right now.”
Schmidt talked to his team about putting in extra time. Schmidt has seen players come in during the mornings and shoot, as well as ask for the gym key on weekends.
“We care a lot more,” Herrman said. “We come up and shoot every day in the mornings. We hustle our butts off and work hard in practice.”
The work has helped the Leopards have an average score of 49-41. Entering last Friday, Morgan had delivered 14 points a game, and Pierce was at 10 points a contest. Both players have made at least 40 treys and are around 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The duo is threatening the single season school record for 3-point percentage.
Among KSHSAA schools, La Crosse ranks fifth in Kansas in 3-pointers made (110) and eighth in treys made per game (6.5), according to MaxPreps’ statewide lists.
“Really that’s what I told them it was going to take, and they have committed fully to that, and just committed to getting better,” Schmidt said.
La Crosse collects just 18 percent of available offensive rebounds and turns the ball over just 19 percent of the time, hallmarks of a guard-oriented, efficient team. The Leopards are 7-0 in games decided by six points or fewer, and 8-2 in games within eight. Last year, La Crosse finished 0-4 in contests within nine points.
“They want the ball this year,” coach Schmidt said. “Last year, I don’t know if they necessarily wanted the ball in tight close games, and they’ve just found ways to win.”
The Leopard losses have come against Sterling, St. John, Ness City and Hoisington, all who are currently ranked, except Ness City. St. John has a pair of 6-7 players, Hoisington’s top player is 6-6 Drew Nicholson, Sterling has 6-5 Tyus Wilson, the state’s best high jumper, and NC has 6-1 Taylor Cable in the post.
“Our senior leadership, they have been playing together for so long,” Schmidt said. “They just kind of mesh really well together, and like to push the ball. Sometimes we get a little out of control, and we slow it back down and try to get the pace back up, but our seniors do a really good job of maintaining the tempo, and try to control the tempo.”
Herrman, the team leader in assists, suffered his collarbone injury early in the 47-39 loss to Ness City on Dec. 13. While he should have missed more time, Herrman returned after just two games.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I love playing sports, and I love being out on the court with all my friends.”
Chase Schmidt became eligible at semester after he transferred from Victoria and has delivered two points, two assists, two steals and three rebounds a game. On Monday, he tallied four points and four rebounds. Schmidt, 10 years younger than his brother, had discussed playing for La Crosse. On most days, he makes the 37-minute one-way trip from Victoria to La Crosse.
“He helps out the team,” coach Schmidt said. “He’s another ball handler, he’s another solid guard that we have that can get to the bucket anytime, and he works hard and just kind of gels with everybody.”
Additionally, Showalter suffered a knee injury and missed five games from Jan. 7 to Jan. 31. However, since February came, La Crosse has enjoyed a full lineup.
“It’s been nice,” coach Schmidt said.
Notably, with Herrman, Showalter and Schmidt combining for 16 points, the Leopards defeated Ness City, 53-37, on Feb. 7. Last Tuesday, La Crosse fell, 49-42, at St. John, which is ranked fourth in 1A by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
On Monday, La Crosse noticed it had more depth than Otis-Bison and significantly pushed the pace early. The Leopards led 17-8 after the first quarter, 40-14 at halftime and 51-15 midway through the third quarter. Otis-Bison dropped to 3-15.
In a 64-second stretch late in the second quarter, Herrman had three assists on four baskets. On one of the baskets, he rifled a pass to Morgan in the corner for a trey, a play they used several times in the contest.
“Just penetrating and kicking it out to our open guys and got it to our shooters and they knocked them down tonight,” Herrman said.
Otis-Bison girls have another scoreless defensive quarter
Otis-Bison’s hallmark has been holding teams to low point totals for a quarter. On Monday, the Cougar girls allowed a trey for the game’s first basket. Then, Otis-Bison tallied the contest’s next 21 points, led 21-3 at halftime and held La Crosse scoreless in the second quarter.
Otis-Bison eventually earned a 43-19 home victory, its third game in five days. The Cougars, ranked seventh in Class 1A, improved to 17-1. It marked the third time this year O-B has held a team scoreless in a quarter.
Senior Cora Anderson, a Barton County basketball commit, finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Senior Maddie Wiltse, who averages 16 points a contest and is headed to play basketball at Nebraska-Kearney, had nine points and seven steals. La Crosse dropped to 4-14. Coach Bobby Trapp wants to see some improvements in certain defenses and better free throw shooting as O-B heads into the postseason.
“The girls have some confidence,” Trapp said. “We have got a good seeding for regionals to get into sub-state.”