Again this year, the Belleville New-Democrat's Small-School Basketball Player of the Year can be found in hoops-crazy Okawville.
Luke Hensler, a 6-foot-7 senior who led the Rockets (27-8) to the Class 1A state championship by averaging 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, earned overwhelming support from coaches and ran away with the honor.
It's the third time in four years an Okawville player has been named Player of the Year. Noah Frederking won in 2017 and 2015.
"It means a lot, especially since a lot of the coaches voted for me. I wouldn't expect that," Hensler said. "To me, in my eyes, I felt like I should have been doing that to help my team out and do whatever we can to get a win. It didn't feel like anything exceptional to me."
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Quite the contrary.
With the Rockets graduating Frederking and Shane Ganz, their leading scorers from 2016-17, Okawville needed offensive production. They got it from Hensler, who averaged just 3.5 points as a junior, and a host of other players.
The end result was the realization of a state-title dream that was shattered in overtime of the championship game last season.
"This is icing on the cake for me," said Hensler, the son of Edward and Julianna Hensler. "Getting the state title — especially the first one in school history — and having BND Player of the Year back-to-back from Noah and now me, it means a lot to me and a lot to the community."
Longtime Rockets coach Jon Kraus was recognized as the Small-School Coach of the Year, repeating his award from last season. But Kraus was particularly pleased about Hensler's honor.
"Luke earned this," Kraus said. "He grew into his body. He got stronger, got more athletic and worked at it. He became a force inside and outside for us. He's a tough matchup for a lot of teams, especially in (Class) 1A. His defensive presence really was key for us.
"When (your program) has the Player of the Year two years in a row, it's pretty special. It's a proud moment for me and our other coaches to see our kids get the publicity that we think they deserve, especially from other coaches, it means a lot."
Even though Frederking and Ganz no longer were around this season, their impact on Hensler was profound.
"You look at Noah and Shane and see their work ethics and how bad they really wanted everything," Hensler said. "They were super-close to winning it all, and that gave us motivation as a team. We all wanted to go back there and get job done for them as a tribute.
"It was a surreal experience to play (in Peoria) and get two wins there to win the state title. It was crazy. It felt like we had the whole town of Okawville there last year, and it all carried over into this year. We always pack our stands. We're all going to remember this, but I think what really gets us is the entire town is going to remember us as a team because we're the first ones to win state."
Hensler was the only Okawville player to average double figures. Opponents were focused on stopping him, but also had to be concerned about senior Payten Harre (9.9 points), juniors Wyatt Krohne (9.0) and Will Aubel (8.8) and senior Caleb Frederking (7.2). Krohne scored 18 points and made five 3-pointers in the Rockets' 59-48 victory over Annawan in the state-championship game.
"I feel like we were really hard to match up with defensively," said Hensler, who scored 10 or more points 24 times, including a high of 31 on Jan. 15 at Gibault. "Every night, one of our five starters could put up 10 to 12 points, for sure. The next guy would put up eight to nine, and then it would be seven to eight. Mixed in with whatever I could do, It really made for a good formula for scoring.
"We were a well-rounded basketball team and we trusted each other. We were close guys and we all had faith in each other that we could finish plays and get the job done."
Hensler finished one of the biggest plays of the seasons in the Jacksonville Super-Sectional when he blocked a shot by Terrell Walker to preserve the Rockets' 65-64 victory over Peoria Quest Academy.
"I felt like whoever won that game had a really good shot at winning state," Hensler said. "Peoria Quest was really good. We took them to two overtimes and it was a one-point game. It was a nuts games. After we won that, we felt we would get the job done."
Hensler understood he would have an increased role this season, and did his best to make the improvements necessary to uphold it.
"Last year, I would just spot up and shoot whenever I was open," Hensler said. "I would play off Noah and Shane. Whenever they could get me the ball, I would take the shots. This year, I was more of an all-around player. I would play with my back to the rim, getting drives, making opportunities for someone else, pulling down rebounds and getting stickbacks and stuff."
Hensler, who could wind up being 6-9 or 6-10, also sank 30 3-pointers to rank third on the Rockets. His ability to score from all three levels on the floor could help him enjoy more success at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, his home for the next two years.
Hensler, who was 5-9 as a freshman, enjoys confounding opposing defenses from in the lane and from beyond the arc.
"It depends on my matchup," he said. "If I have a slower, big guy on me, I love taking him outside and being kind of crafty and taking him to the bucket. But if I know I have someone smaller and weaker on me, I love putting my back to the basket and just babying him to the rim and getting easy buckets. I'm more of an inside guy; I like to get closer to the basket. But I'll take open 3s if they're there."
Kraus said it wasn't until this season that Hensler realized he could effectively play in the post.
"Over the summer and into the beginning of the year, he grew more and more confident about, 'Hey, I can score buckets in here,'" Kraus said. "He became more of a post presence for us than he did a 3-point threat. But there were a lot of games where he would make those 3-point shots early, and that really made it difficult to match up with him. He could score from anywhere on the floor."
Kraus wouldn't be surprised to see Hensler develop into a Division II prospect.
"He's going to grow yet. He's going to get better," Kraus said. "After the leaps he made from last year to this year, he's got more in there. He could be a good player somewhere. To me, he's a sleeper out there for some college that's looking. He could help somebody."
Class 1A-2A All-Area Boys Basketball
Player of the Year
Luke Hensler, Okawville, sr.
Coach of the Year
Jon Kraus, Okawville
Karson Huels, Gibault, jr.
Hunter Ottensmeier, Wesclin, sr.
Tyler Siever, Carlyle, sr.
Nate Brede, Wesclin, jr.
Bryce Bultman, Nashville, jr.
Antwan Glasper, Lovejoy, jr.
Payton Harre, Okawville, sr.
Michael Chism, Valmeyer, sr.
David Krumsieg, Lebanon, sr.
Carson Parker, Nashville, so.
(Players listed in alphabetical order)
Brandon Courtney, Wesclin; Caleb Frederking, Okawville; Wyatt Krohne, Okawville; Cameron Jameson, Madison; Kendall Kennedy, Madison; D'Andre Loston, Lovejoy; Logan Schumate, Father McGivney; Griffin Ziebold, Red Bud.
Past Small-School Players of the Year
- 2017 — Noah Frederking, Okawville
- 2016 — Logan Kohrmann, Central
- 2015 — Noah Frederking, Okawville
- 2014 — Jacob Timmermann, Central
- 2013 — Marquis Borney, Madison
- 2012 — Brandon Book, Central
- 2011 — Brandon Book, Central
- 2010 — David Wiegmann, Central
- 2009 — Garrett Gaffner, Central
- 2008 — Sean Rakers, Wesclin
- 2007 — Lucas O’Rear, Nashville
- 2006 — Lucas O’Rear, Nashville
- 2005 — Kevin Lisch, Althoff
- 2004 — Jacob Toal, Gibault
- 2003 — Lance Stemler, Gibault
- 2002 — Jason Guyette, Freeburg
- 2001 — Brent Mueller, Columbia
- 2000 — Robert Lea, Nashville
- 1999 — Les Norman, Lebanon; John Thomas, Gibault
- 1998 — Maurice Baker, Madison
- 1997 — Abel Schrader, Okawville
- 1996 — Eric Schwehr, Lebanon