Park Hill senior Jaleiyah Gibbs tried to lay claim to the championship plaque — the Trojans’ first district title since 1995 — but fellow senior Murphy Crowl took the honors following Park Hill’s 48-31 triumph against Staley in the title game Friday, March 6 at St. Joseph Central High School. A long, successful season ended with the desired playoff appearance, leaving the Trojans’ experienced roster ready to celebrate a bit before moving on to sectionals.
“I’m taking that trophy home with me,” Gibbs joked. “It feels really good. We worked really hard to get this opportunity today. Three years of being in last place and people doubting us. Now this year, we finally came up and showed everybody what we’re capable of.”
Park Hill (19-8) faces Liberty in a Class 5 sectional scheduled for Wednesday, March 11 at Excelsior Springs High School in Excelsior Springs, Mo. Liberty won both meetings between the two during the regular season on the way to a 10-0 finish in the Suburban Conference Red Division.
Park Hill lost both by double digits, but more importantly, the Trojans have a chance to try and spring a playoff upset thanks to the blowout of Staley.
The only team in the District 16 bracket with a winning record, Park Hill entered the fourth quarter tied at 27 but opened the frame with a 6-0 run. First, Gigi Hopkins rattled in a 3-pointer from the top of the key — the Trojans’ only triple of the game — and then sophomore Morgen Smith finished a layup with contact and hit the free throw to complete a three-point play, capping her 16-point effort.
Smith — a 6-foot-1 forward — has played in 18 of 27 games this season after missing more than a month with a knee injury. Out starting with Christmas break, she returned during the North Kansas City Invitational but broke out during the Trojans’ two district wins — totaling 30 points between the semifinal and final, none bigger than the three-point play in the opening moments of the fourth quarter vs. Staley.
“It gave me confidence, but I knew we couldn’t let our guard down,” said Smith, who averages about five points and four rebounds per game. “Staley’s a good team, and we knew they would come back if we let up, so we had to play hard to the last minute.”
Park Hill didn’t let up and wouldn’t be challenged again.
Staley scored only four points in the fourth quarter, while the Trojans pulled away to a comfortable double-digit victory with a 12-1 run to the finish. Park Hill nearly doubled its point total in the final 8 minutes, and junior guard Amanda Alexander contributed eight of her 10 points, Gibbs four of her 12 and Hopkins five of her nine in the frame.
After entering the playoffs off of a loss to Truman, Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser found a way to motivate his players and pull them out of the tight contest.
“It felt good to make it and help the team get the boost,” Hopkins said. “He told us, ‘We can do this and it’s our game. If we want it, we have to go get it.’”
Park Hill continues to play without senior Riana Everidge, who Neeser said left the team following the loss to Truman.
However, the revamped lineup moves on with a chance to make a deeper impact on history. The Trojans have a 4-2 record all time in the playoffs with the only two appearances in back-to-back seasons (1994 and 1995). They finished second in state in 1995 in Class 4A — then the largest in Missouri.
Thoughts of making a similar run would be a longshot, but Neeser is impressed with how his players achieved the first goal by toppling Staley to reach this point.
“I was really proud of how they played defense together,” he said. “They stuck to the game plan. They rebounded when we asked them to and they just made plays. They made winning plays. I’m so proud of these kids. We stepped up and made plays. They weren’t scared of the moment. They went in there and had no fear. They made plays when they needed it, and they finished.”