The O’Fallon Panthers entered the 2017-18 season with a new coach in Nick Knolhoff, a new power forward in Sydney Thurwalker and the hope they would contend for the Southwestern Conference championship.
Currently 7-0 following a 70-41 win over Collinsville Thursday, Knolhoff, who led Althoff to the South Seven Conference championship a year ago, has the Panthers tied for the lead in the SWC with Class 4A state power Edwardsville.
Both teams are 3-0 in league play after Thursday. East St. Louis was in the mix before taking its first loss against Beleville East.
Edwardsville and O’Fallon won’t meet on the court until the Tigers travel to the Panther Dome on Jan. 5. The two teams finished 4-0 at the O’Fallon Thanksgiving Tournament, but did not play in pool play in the round robin event.
While three-year starter Marta Durk graduated last spring, Knolhoff inherited some talented players from Ryan Massey who resigned following the 2016-17 season.
Senior guard Jayla Stubblefield runs the Panthers balanced offense and is one of five players averaging from at least 9.2 points per game. Izzy Akoro is a 6-foot guard/forward who also returned. Akoro is averaging 10 points per game.
Junior guard Ashley Schloer (10.2 ppg.) and Makayla Best (9.5) along with Thurwalker (11.5) round out the Panthers starting lineup. Schloer had a break-out game Thursday, scoring a career-high 27 points against Collinsville.
Thurwalker, a two-year starter at Belleville West, transferred to O’Fallon this summer. A physical 5-11 senior, Thurwalker was one of the top players in the SWC a year ago when she averaged 12.9 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Lancers struggling without Rainey
Expected to be one of the top Class 4A in southern Illinois and a potential threat in the Southwestern Conference, the Belleville East Lancers fell to 2-5 for the season on Tuesday following a 70-35 defeat at Edwardsville.
With junior point guard Kaylah Rainey sitting on the bench with a sprained right ankle for the second straight night, East gave the undefeated Tigers a battle for a half before a 25-0 scoring run blew the game open.
It has been a tough start to the season for Rainey, who was a third team Class 3A-4A all-state selection and Belleville News-Democrat all-area selection a year ago when she averaged 15.3 points. 2.7 assists and 4.8 steals. The 5-6 Rainey is listed by ESPN as the 14th best guard in the nation for the Class of 2019.
East coach Amanda Kemezys said Rainey sprained her ankle in the Lancers’ preseason intra-squad game then tweaked it again in the Lancers win against Alton last week. Rainey did not play against O’Fallon or Edwardsville and her status for Thursday against East St. Louis is questionable.
“It’s better than what it was. She’s been getting treatment and she’s no longer wearing a boot,’’ Kemezys said after the game on Tuesday. “We’re just not going to take any chances with it until she feels like she can play. It’s a long season.’’
Rainey has already received scholarship offers from Brown and Penn in the Ivy League, Illinois and Iowa from the Big 10 and Kansas in the Big 12, just to mention a few.
Carlyle on a roll
They won consecutive state championships in 1996 and 1997 under coach Angie Gherardini, but the Carlyle Indians have found success on the basketball court hard to come by in the past three years.
After finishing 5-22 in the 2014-15 season, the Indians managed just four wins combined in the last two years and finished a dismal 1-26 last season. That win came after a winless regular season and against a Red Bud team which among the elite in the Cahokia Conference a year ago.
Their lone win came against Red Bud in the class A regional tournament and has also proven to be the springboard for Carlyle. The Indians opened this season by winning the Litchfield Tournament and equaling its total of the last two years with four wins in less than a week.
“The win in the first round of the regional last year against Red Bud was more of a relief for everyone on our team. This group of kids are a year older and a year stronger ... and got a lot of varsity game experience last season,’’ Indians coach Darin Smith said. “The difference this year is that we played in a different tournament to start the season. We moved from Salem Tournament which is predominantly 3A and 4A schools to the Litchfield event which is predominantly 2A schools. Winning the first game of the year and winning the Litchfield Tourney gave our girls confidence.’’
Currently 5-3 following a 48-22 loss to Greenville on Tuesday, the Indians have six seniors who up until this season had won only nine games in their high school careers. Led by Brooklynn Smith (13 ppg.) and Molly Diekemper (12 ppg.), Carlyle features a solid defense and somewhat inconsistent offense.
“I'm still waiting for that complete game,” Smith said. “Our first five wins our defense played well and our offense kind of struggled and our last two losses our offense has looked better but we gave up 50 points to a good Salem team and 70 points to a good Columbia team. I just hope we continue to improve and play our best basketball down the stretch.
“Our schedule is very tough, the conference especially. It includes 2A school Wesclin and 3A schools Central, Freeburg, Columbia and Salem. We have to come ready to play each and every game. But I can’t say enough about our seniors. The fact that we have only won nine varsity games in the seniors first three years of high school says something about their commitment to our program..’’
Father McGivney showing it can compete
One of the newest Class 1A varsity programs in the state, Father McGivney High School in Glen Carbon has wasted little time in proving it can compete at a high level. After finishing with a 7-16 record in their first season a year ago, the Griffins opened this season by winning the Dupo Tournament and are 5-3 following a 40-31 loss to Vandalia earlier this week.
Led by veteran coach Jeff Oller, the Griffins currently have 15 players in their program and feature a starting lineup of a freshman, three sophomores and a junior.
“The girls on the team have really bought into building our program. They made a commitment to improvement in the off season and developed their skill on the court and athleticism by working in the weight room,’’ Oller said. “The upperclassmen and alumni have done a great job of laying the groundwork for the program. We would like to get some more girls involved in our program We want to keep working hard, establish our culture, and just continue to keep building the program.’’
The Griffins defeated Madison (65-35) and Roxana (44-32) to advance to the title game at Dupo. With freshman Anna McKee scoring 21 points, Father McGivney won the first tournament in school history, edging Gibault 40-39 in the title game. McKee is one of the leading freshman scorers in the St. Louis area — averaging 17.9 points per game.
“The Dupo tournament win was a nice step for the program. It was nice for the girls to see their hard work in the off season pay off at the tournament,’’ Oller said, “We still have a long way to go though and the girls have continued to put in the work at practice and improve.’’
Sophomores Macy Hoppes, Mariah Starnes and Madison Webb along with junior Caitlyn Pendall round out the Griffins’ starting lineup.
“Anna (McKee) has done a great job coming in as a freshmen and plays very well with our team. She knows how to score and our girls do a great job of finding her. She also pressures the ball very well in our defense,’’ Oller said. “Macy (Hoppes) does a great job running our offense. She is a leader on the court and always brings energy and effort.’’