EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. — Park Hill received a taste of the Missouri Class 5 playoffs for the first time in school history. For a program devoid of much recent success, the Trojans enjoyed the ride — no matter how fleeting.
Liberty defeated Park Hill for a third time this season, the latest a 56-33 win Wednesday, March 11 in a sectional matchup at Excelsior Springs High School. The current group of three seniors suffered through back-to-back losing campaigns the past two seasons before nearly reaching 20 wins and forging the third run to the playoffs in school history — the last during a Class 4A state runner-up finish 20 years or earlier.
“Wins or losses, we had a really fun year,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “We had a really good group. I told them how special they were, how they created memories and a bond that will last a lifetime. That’s more important than anything we’ve ever done on the court. I’m proud of them for the way they handled everything this year.”
Park Hill sophomore Morgen Smith leads a promising group of underclassmen. She scored a team-high 16 points in the loss to Liberty and cracked double figures in all three postseason games, helping the Trojans overcome the loss of leading scorer Riana Everidge, who left the team at halftime of the regular-season finale against Truman.
“I plan on getting here again,” Smith said. “It took a lot to get here, but I know we’re capable of doing it. I don’t want to let it end like this ever again because it sucks.”
Park Hill finishes at 19-9. The Trojans ran off win streaks of six and five early in the season before playing a bit more inconsistent down the stretch. They were 6-4 in Suburban Conference Red Division play, losing twice each to undefeated champion Liberty and runner-up Truman.
However, Park Hill entered District 16 as the top seed and only one in the six-team bracket with a winning record, beating rival Park Hill South and then Staley in the title game to earn one final shot at Liberty, which advanced to the Class 5 semifinals with another win on Saturday.
“It feels really good to come this far,” said Park Hill senior Jaleiyah Gibbs, who finished with nine points in the sectional loss. “It feels even worse to lose in a sectional game when you know you worked so hard over the summer and in the season to make it this far.”
Liberty standout junior Morgan Fleming — younger sister of Trojans assistant coach Kara Fleming — gashed Park Hill for 16 points before the break. She entered the game with 981 career points and hit the 1,000 milestone late in the third quarter.
The anticipation of the achievement became a big focus in the second half with Park Hill down 31-16 at halftime.
Liberty’s large contingent of traveling student support gasped at every shot from the guard. Fleming finally hit a layup with 55 seconds left in the third quarter and drew a foul. The ensuing free throw made it 1,000, and she finished with a game-high 26 points.
“Morgan Fleming is a very good player,” Neeser said. “Everything she gets she deserves. She works really hard.”
Only six players tallied points for Park Hill, including five for junior guard Amanda Alexander. Katie Reichert, a senior forward, finished her career with a two-point game, while Murphy Crowl, the final senior, did not score.
Sophomore reserves Gigi Hopkins and Alex Berger scored two points each off the bench.
Neeser pulled the regulars from the game with 90 seconds left. That included Smith, Alexander and Maliah Hudson — a trio of underclassmen in the starting lineup for the Trojans first playoff game since 1995 who have a chance to come back and build off this rare chance.
“We talked about that in the locker room, learning from this experience,” Neeser said. “Not just being excited about being here. About wanting more and making plays and finishing. We’re going to talk about that in the offseason.”