Seniors and All-Conference award-winners McKensie Herold, MacKenzee Barker and Meghann Cranford. HERALD PHOTO/Mark Madia
EVANSTON — The Evanston Lady Red Devils held their end-of-season awards dinner on Thursday, March 14, in the Evanston Machine Shop.
Senior parent Tim Herold opened up the festivities, welcoming the crowd and extending some thank-yous before inviting all to dine on the catered meal provided by The Gateway Grill.
The coaches then took their places behind the podium, beginning with freshman coach Todd Walker. Walker began by thanking his family for allowing him the opportunity to continue coaching, following up with words of praise for assistant coach Stormy Dolezal for her valued assistance, and then gave kudos to EHS Classics director Janice Davis for sharing the Red Devils’ gym in early morning practices.
Walker extended his appreciation to sophomore coach Dave Peterson, junior varsity coach Bryan Barker and varsity coach Scott Ehlers, especially for encouraging and allowing the freshman girls to continue to attend practices once their season had ended, and finally the parents of his players for the different ways in which they lent their support, and for raising an outstanding group of young ladies.
‘This was a tough year for me,” Walker shared, as he segued into talking about success, expounding on how success may not be readily apparent, when viewing his team’s season, in terms of being highly effective and competitive.
“Our team only averaged 19 points offensively, and allowed 38 points through the first 11 games,” Walker relayed, making a distinction between the first half of the season, in those first 11 games, and the second half of the season. The Lady Red Devils freshmen did not post a win in the first half of the season, with their highest output of just 26 points.
In the second half of the season, the freshmen girls averaged 28 offensively, while yielding 34.
“On average, we were still giving up more than we were scoring, but that’s a 14-point swing,” Walker explained.
The freshman coach credited improvements in the fundamentals of the game, leading to fewer turnovers and more solid basketball fundamentals, in leading to their improved performance. Walker was pleased with what he termed as the growth of his team. He acknowledged they still had work to do, and his hope that hard work would take place in the off-season, but affirmed his belief that this group of girls, “could be better than what they can even imagine,” going forward, if they will only buy into the course that has been laid before them.
The freshman coach then introduced his team, beginning with Clarisa Barton and followed by Drew Groth, Daphne Ferrins, Bailey Cornia, Casey Luft, Vanessa Ramirez, Emily Davis, Emily Jaimez, Jackie Kennedy, Page Nixon and Sophia Williams. Walker noted the two missing at the festivities were team managers Crystal Kempernolte and Shaye Wicks. The girls received a warm round of applause, after which Walker introduced sophomore coach Dave Peterson.
Sophomore Lady Red Devils
Peterson began by thanking his wife for the last season, quipping he was getting caught up for not doing so at the awards banquet in 2012.
“We were not very good,” Peterson stated matter-of-factly. “We were 1-9 through our first 10 games, but we ran into some buzz-saws.”
The sophomore coach echoed the freshman coach in the necessity for working on basketball skills in the off-season. His message to the sophomores, in competing against the larger schools next season, was to get ready for a whole new caliber of competition.
Peterson spoke of his team’s turnaround, finishing 7-3 in the final 10 games, and how the girls he coached developed a better understanding of his expectations, and the coach, himself, grew to appreciate their hard work and dedication.
“The sophomore program kinda gets kicked to the curb,” the coach explained, noting how their roster is picked apart to benefit the junior varsity and varsity programs and other challenges faced. He relayed a story of Jesse Mitchell doing a military crawl to punch a ball ahead, typifying the heart and desire the team experienced through their growth.
“I told them in the locker room,” Peterson recalled, “’You’re all like my own kids, and I love each and every one of you. You all bring different things to the table, and have different personalities, but every one of you contributes to our family.’”
Peterson spoke of his love and appreciation for all the girls he coached, his excitement at the prospects for the future, and his belief that the program has turned some corners and is headed in the right direction, with “a lot of talent, heart and energy” coming through the ranks. He credited activities director Bubba O’Neill with the realization that basketball is no longer a November to March sport, but instead requires year-round effort in order to be successful.
Peterson issued thanks to coach Barker and coach Ehlers, and made sure he thanked his wife, Crystal, this time around, before introducing his sophomore team.
Ashanah Barnes, Holly Chandler, Jasmyne Bryant, Jessie Mitchell, Katie Welling, Kalle Lunsford, Kayla King, Kaylee Horton and MaKayla Kallas were all called forward by Peterson to receive their letter or certificates of participation, and also received a congratulatory round of applause.
Junior varsity Lady Red Devils
Junior varsity coach Brian Barker then took his turn, beginning by explaining the crossover with certain girls playing at different and multiple levels within the program.
“This is one of the closest-knit groups I’ve ever been around,” Barker shared, “and there have been some good ones.”
He elaborated how the closeness factor benefits all levels of Lady Red Devils basketball. He also gave thanks to his wife and family, calling their support “amazing,” extending that descriptive term to the girls he coached, in thanking their parents, complimenting their character for the way “they battled, cheered for one another, supported each other,” and their exemplary conduct as ambassadors of Evanston High School and their community. Barker expressed his gratitude to coach Peterson, coach Ehlers and volunteer assistant Heather Gifford, expounding on the worthwhile nature of coaching, with its long hours and time away from his own family, when shared with coaches who have the same vision, goals and enthusiasm to become a successful program.
Barker spoke of his team beginning the season 1-7, but qualified the early season record by saying how the talented competition his Lady Red Devils faced figured into that record, and how competing against great teams would pay benefits for the conference season. When considering season highlights, Barker spoke of a loss, but prefaced it this way:
“In the early season, we played a Cheyenne East team which just destroyed us,” he began. “We actually asked an opposing coach to lift their full-court press, as we couldn’t get the ball up the floor. I believe at one time it was 31-2, and we ended up losing by 35 to 40 points.”
Evanston ended up facing that same team in the Flaming Gorge Tournament two weeks later, and while suffering another loss, this time around it was by 14 points.
“I think that’s the first time I really saw some fight in our girls, diving after loose balls, hustling, playing tougher defense on a small, little court, running into walls — they just decided they were going to play to their potential, and at that point and time, I thought we had started to turn a corner, and it carried forward from there,” Barker shared.
The junior varsity coach told the crowd his team won 11 of their last 15, to finish 12-11, and described how they “just got better and got better” as the season progressed, citing a battle with Star Valley his JV team won by 10 points.
“There were marks along the way to show the true character of this group,” he said. “Their commitment, their trust in each other, the joy to play together, their closeness, the teamwork…. They just really came together, and got it done.”
Barker spoke of a bright future due to the character of the returning players, and how they will feed off the success the varsity enjoyed at the end of the year. “Thank you,” he concluded. “I’ve been proud to coach you, and will be proud to coach you in the future. It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be fun and we’re just going to get it done. This is just a step in that direction.”
Barker then introduced the core of the junior varsity team, noting some were also varsity letter-winners, and began with his sophomore daughter, Alli Barker, along with Lexi Bown, Jessie Fraughton, Sarah Frakes, Pearl Marquez, Brinae Sanders and Ashlee Thornock, who were all called forward and congratulated as a junior varsity team.
Varsity Lady Red Devils
Coach Scott Ehlers began by thanking Bubba O’Neill and Dauna Bruce, from the activities office, and then praised his assistant coaches for the different contributions each brings to the program. He thanked his wife, describing Vicki Ehlers as “probably your best friend,” a comment directed at his players, describing his wife’s efforts at keeping him in check, “when I got fired up, which, you know, rarely happened,” the coach stated facetiously.
He thanked LaDonna Howard for the team building activities she spearheaded. “Candy and Jul in transportation” along with “Tina and Nicole in the high school office,” also received words of appreciation from Ehlers, the latter pair for which he alluded to issuing an “I’m sorry” in advance of what was to come.
“I walked into their office and said ‘I’m sorry.’ Tina had no clue what I was talking about, and neither did Nicole,” Ehlers explained. “I’m sorry. I’m going to screw up, and I’m just apologizing early.”
The coach thanked parents, the Lady Red Devils Booster Club, then began his own applause for anyone who had any part in the Lady Red Devils basketball program throughout the season.
He spoke of his team’s rough start, and being mystified as to why this seems to be the norm.
“Our preseason is by far,” the coach, who later admitted to being under the weather, “two to three times tougher than our conference season.”
The coach named off some of his team’s preseason competition in Cheyenne East, Natrona County and Laramie, describing the “brutal” nature of the schedule, playing teams who were just “really, really good this year.”
Pointing to his team’s 12-17 record, the coach stated, “It could have easily been 17-12. There were five losses that were just very frustrating. We need to get rolling earlier, you know, just for me.”
Ehlers shared the focus with which his team embarked upon to improve offensively, relating they weren’t making the progress the coaching staff had hoped for.
“So I went back to what got me to where I am, and that’s defense,” he said.
Ehlers imparted his belief that playing sound defense can turn athletes into “pretty good basketball players,” and if they’ll work on the offensive components of their game in the off-season, they can become “really good basketball players.”
The coach equated success to good footwork, noting that’s where the Lady Red Devils basketball program, as a whole, needs to improve the most.
“If you don’t have good footwork, you’re not going to be able to shoot it, or make good passes,” the coach detailed, “and after that, there’s little left offensively.”
Ehlers vowed his team would work hard on improving their footwork.
He complimented his varsity team’s work ethic, “at no point ever quitting or considered giving up,” even when they were struggling to secure a win and find their identity.
Ehlers turned his attention to the latter part of the season, describing his team’s run through the regional tournament and subsequent state qualification, pausing to pay tribute to his assistant coaches, and request a round of applause for them. He explained being named co-conference coach-of-the-year with coach Diehl of Natrona County meant very little to him, personally, except for the way the honor reflected on his staff, of whom he was exceptionally proud.
“So we’re going into the state tournament,” the coach told the crowd, “and we’re feeling pretty good, except for the fact that we have to play Gillette.”
Ehlers colorfully and humorlessly painted a picture of the “buffness factor” of the Campbell County girls, adding, “I don’t know if you got to see Gillette, but they were really, really good.”
The coach continued on, describing his team’s 6-2 first quarter lead over Gillette, and how the Lady Red Devils played exemplary defense, prior to the injuries to Kylie Hurd and Alli Barker.
“So now we have two players in our main rotation sidelined,” he said.
Ehlers jumped back to three weeks prior, relating his call for cohesiveness among the team.
“We’re not going anywhere, anywhere...” the coach affirmed, “without each of you stepping up, supporting one another and being ready,” sharing his satisfaction with the way his team responded to his call to action.
Even in the lopsided first round loss, Evanston held Gillette to 40 points, much lower than their average, with Ehlers informing the crowd how the Lady Red Devils finished tied for third among the state’s best defensive teams.
The coach chronicled the second game against Laramie, who had defeated Evanston twice on the season, detailing how good both Madison Legerski and Katie Kuhn of the Lady Plainsmen were, “and we pretty much took care of them.”
Noting his team’s inability to consistently hit free-throws, Ehlers joked, “And gosh dang it, if we could just hit a free-throw. We get down through the fourth quarter, and we’re 0 for 14, or 13, from the line. Free-throws are overrated. We just would have won the game by 15, instead of overtime, twice.”
“After that game, I thought, ‘All right. We’re okay. We’re going to get there,’” the coach recalled. “I knew we could beat Rock Springs. They shot 39, and we were at the line maybe nine times, and lost to them by 10 or so.”
“So, for the first time in 13 years, this bunch right here — and I’m talking everyone — this bunch right here brought home some hardware,” the coach proudly detailed of Evanston’s 4A State Tournament consolation crown and trophy. His speech was interrupted by applause.
“Our goal, when we took over,” Ehlers continued, “was to put this program back on the map. And we’re back on the map, and that’s pretty danged exciting.”
Additional letter-winners were then called forward, beginning with team manager Bekka Kunz, whom Ehlers characterized as comical, but also a take-charge individual.
“She makes me laugh, but she also took control. There was no messing around with Bekka,” the coach said.
Kunz could not attend the state tournament, due to soccer involvement, with Ehlers referring to the barrage of text inquiries from Kunz wondering how the team was doing. He also had words of praise for manager Mary Gee, “who was also always there for us. Mary was Bekka’s counterpart and did a wonderful job. Those are two special people right there.
Junior Hailey O’Neill was called out next.
“Hailey’s a really good player,” Ehlers said of O’Neill. “She is always ready to get in there and mix it up, and I appreciated the way she would flat get after it. We’re gonna work with her on footwork and make her much better so that, next season, when she catches, she’s going to turn and score.”
Senior point guard MacKenzee Barker was called forth next, with Ehlers explaining how much of the team’s success hinges upon the play of the point guard.
“The ball is always in their hands, and they have to feel the heat. And Gizmo-slash-MacKenzee has come a long, long, long, long way,” Ehlers conveyed. “She’s got a motor that just won’t quit. She’s a hard worker, and I just can’t say enough about Gizmo because, when the heat was on, she kept right on a-going. She’s a great kid.”
Ehlers described the versatility of senior Meghann Cranford.
“We had her everywhere,” he said.
The coach explained how Cranford was an integral part of the team’s success, when attempting different combinations and tweaks to the game plan, and noted Cranford’s selfless approach.
“She sacrificed stats, because we oftentimes had her passing,” he said. Cranford became adept in all phases of the game, according to her coach. “It just all came together for her, and I said to her, ‘Meghann, I want you to start shooting the ball sometimes.’ Meghann contributed in a number of ways. She’s a great player.”
Senior McKenzie Herold, who led every statistical category other than assists and steals, with MacKenzee Barker in the top spot, was the last of three seniors to be recognized.
“Kenz, she’s a tough kid. Sometimes, I just didn’t know where she was, whether she was happy or sad,” Herold’s coach said of her, in jest. “Her emotions she did not wear on her sleeve. They were right on her face. She was a hard worker and, when she got the ball, she was going to the basket, and you’d better look out.”
Kylie Hurd, in a walking brace from a knee-injury, came forth next. Ehlers relayed the sadness he felt for Hurd, describing her as “playing as big of a role as anybody in bringing home this hardware, of the success we experienced, yet was unable to be a part of it, in the end.”
The coach praised his junior’s progress, alluding to her “earning a starting spot a quarter of the way through the season,” and his view of her determination and tenacity.
“She worked hard to get where she was,” he said. “She’s a pretty focused kid, and once her knee has healed, we’ll get her going again.”
“4A basketball for girls is changing, if it hasn’t already,” Ehlers affirmed. “I think Evanston is also at a turning point.”
Ehlers elaborated on the increased athleticism and skill level of opposing players, detailing the need for time invested in off-season work, if the Lady Red Devils “are to make that jump,” defined by the coach as, “being on the other side of that bracket, vying for first and second and joining the upper echelon teams.”
He summarized, “If we can’t find the time, then we simply won’t make that jump,” clarifying, “dedication to giving 110 percent to a sport year-round” is not required, nor being asked for, but that time must be invested and work put in, apart from the “in-season,” harping back to the footwork improvement concept. “And once we get better with our footwork, we will make jumps like there’s no tomorrow.”
Three individual awards were then handed out, to the three seniors. As previously reported in the Herald, McKensie Herold and Meghann Cranford received 4A West All-Conference awards. What was unknown at the time was that fellow senior MacKenzee Barker had been named to the All-Conference second team.
Ehlers expounded on his belief that Evanston had one or two players worthy of All-State selection, and ultimately not placing anyone simply serves as motivation to continue to improve and come back even stronger, with Lady Red Devils named to the All-State team next season.
Coach Barker then took the microphone, expressing his belief Ehlers should have been named coach of the year, citing his head coach getting more out of his players than teams with superior talent — in quantity, not quality — due to their much larger talent pools, calling for a standing ovation for Ehlers, for which the crowd seemed happy to oblige.
The crowd was treated to a stirring musical season highlight slideshow, produced by Heather Gifford, to end the evening’s festivities.