Taryn Preston doesn’t see why the “in-between” year can’t be the magical year when Kent City wins its first MHSAA Finals girls basketball championship.
Preston scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds as the Eagles stayed unbeaten with a hard-earned 36-33 victory over host Morley Stanwood in Friday’s Division 3 District Final.
“Our experience pulls us through in games like this,” explained Preston, one of just two seniors, along with post Emma Geers.
“We are a different team than last year, but everyone knows what they have to do when they step on the floor, and that’s really important.”
Last year, Kent City made it all the way to the Finals at the Breslin Center before losing to top-ranked Grass Lake 52-50 in the championship game.
Most outsiders expected a letdown this winter as the Eagles graduated two of the state’s best 3-point shooters in Kenzie Bowers (Illinois State) and Jenna Harrison (Siena Heights), and the team’s two best players this year are underclassmen – sophomore Maddie Geers and junior Lexie Bowers.
Adding to the question marks, 12-year head coach Scott Carlson resigned in October and took an assistant coaching job at Western Michigan University, turning the reins over to his former player and five-year junior varsity coach Aleah Holcomb, who is just 26 years old.
The final hurdle was injuries, as both of the team’s seniors missed extended time with injuries – Emma Geers six weeks with a knee injury and Preston three weeks with an Achilles strain.
Despite all of that, the Eagles have found a way to win every game to maintain their lofty No. 2 state ranking, winning their fifth-straight Central States Activities Association Silver title and now their fifth-straight District title.
Kent City (22-0) will face Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (17-4) in Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. Division 3 Regional opener at Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian.
“I am amazed by the determination and drive of these girls – that never changes,” said Holcomb, who is assisted by Mikayla Loew, another former Kent City player. “We have a great system in place here. We just had to tweak a few things, the way we do every year, and these girls have made it an easy transition.”
Holcomb’s calm sideline demeanor and respect for her players has helped with the coaching transition, to be sure.
Holcomb and her team kept their cool in Friday’s District title game, even after Morley tied the game at 32 with four minutes remaining, bringing the upset-minded home crowd to its feet.
The first-year coach actually went to a four-corners offense, keeping the ball away from the Mohawks and eventually drawing fouls. The Eagles made 4-of-6 free throws down the stretch to pull out the win.
“We were in foul trouble, so the more time we could spend on offense, the better,” explained Holcomb. “I believe in our girls’ ability to handle the ball. It was a risky call, but it worked out.”
Kent City made a statement during the first month of this season, registering a huge, season-opening road win at Muskegon, then downing Ada Forest Hills Eastern and Grand Rapids Christian to capture the Cornerstone University Holiday Tournament Gold division title. Maddie Geers won the tournament Most Valuable Player honor.
While Carlson’s KC teams were known statewide for their 3-point shooting prowess, this year’s team is more diverse in its attack.
Maddie Geers and Bowers are excellent at slashing to the basket, while the senior duo of Emma Geers and Preston have proven their toughness inside.
“We can still knock down the 3s, but we revolve more around our inside game,” said Holcomb, who played college basketball at Davenport University in Grand Rapids. “Having girls that can get inside and make tough shots is just another asset that we have on this team.”
One of those girls is Preston, a three-sport athlete who is the star on her other two teams and more of a role player on the basketball court.
Preston, who is near the top of her class academically, is an all-state hurdler who signed in December with Cornerstone University, where she will run track and study nursing. She was also the leading hitter for the Eagles’ volleyball team, averaging 4.5 kills per game last fall.
She credits her teammates with helping her improve on the hardcourt.
“The girls on the basketball team have pushed me, and this year I’m a lot more confident in myself,” said Preston. “I don’t have a sister of my own, but I consider every single one of them to be a sister.”
Preston is a versatile player who is willing to do all of the little things the team needs to win, according to Holcomb.
The senior nailed two crucial 3-pointers Friday night, and when the team went cold from downtown, she drove to the basket and made a pair of key buckets. Kent City had one of its poorest shooting nights of the year, making just 4-of-25 shots from behind the arc.
Preston knows the team will have to shoot better if it hopes to win another Regional title – but she believes in her team.
“We are very versatile this year, so we can overcome a bad shooting night,” Preston said. “We have the skills and we have the mindset, so I really believe that we can get back (to the Breslin).”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Kent City celebrates its Division 3 District title win Friday against Morley Stanwood. (Middle) Lexie Bowers (23) begins making her move toward the basket. (Photos courtesy of the Kent City athletic department.)