KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park Hill’s seniors just wanted another chance.
Now that the Trojans have earned a second playoff berth in three years, the players can shift the focus to making more history. A dominant 69-45 win against St. Joseph Central on Thursday, March 2 in the Class 5 District 16 title game provides an opportunity at some sort of revenge.
In 2015, Park Hill advanced to the playoffs only to lose in a sectional against Liberty. A playoff rematch was scheduled for Wednesday, March 8 at Silverstein Eyes Center Arena in Independence, Mo.
Morgen Smith, Gigi Hopkins and Alex Berger — all now seniors — played in the previous playoff loss, which brought a quick and disappointing end to Park Hill’s first playoff appearance in nearly two decades.
“We’re going back, and we’re really hoping we can go further than we have gone ever before,” said Smith, who scored six points in the district final against Central but led Trojans in scoring in the 2015 playoff loss to Liberty. “This has been a big goal of ours all season, and every day at practice we just talked about what we were going to do to get ourselves here and win this game.”
Park Hill (20-6), which reached the 20-win mark for the first time in more than two decades according to available records, never trailed against Central.
Ali Walls, a junior guard, hit a 3-pointer in each of the first two quarters to help key a 32-15 halftime lead. Indians leading scorer Jaelyn Haggard went into the break scoreless and finished with just seven points.
“In the beginning of the season, I lacked in my shooting and I lacked confidence when I was shooting so to start the game with that I had more confidence in myself and I knew that I was doing stuff for my team,” Walls said. “We’ve worked so hard, and I’m just so proud of our seniors and so proud of everyone on the team.”
Park Hill didn’t let the lead slip and went wire-to-wire in blowout fashion.
Hopkins scored eight of her 13 in the second quarter, while Berger hit a first quarter 3 on her way to 11. Taiya Shelby, an occasionally explosive junior for Park Hill, matched Berger with 11 points, while sophomore guard Tee Bryant went for a game-high 24 points, hitting 9 of 12 free throws in the first quarter to keep Central at a distance.
Central closed within 11 at the end of the third quarter, but Park Hill’s free throw shooting helped close out a win and a playoff return after the disappointment of a district semifinal loss to Staley last season.
“It’s a good way to end my senior year, and a lot of people doubted us this year so to prove them wrong felt good, too,” Hopkins said.
Park Hill only has four all-time playoff berths, and the last 20-win season likely came in a 27-6 run to a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 1995. That was the last playoff appearance before the current sophomores helped end the drought two years ago.
Now, the chance to end the playoff win drought comes against Liberty (16-11), which has not played the Trojans this season.
“I could not be happier for these kids,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “It has been 124 days of work and preparation to get to this point, and I could not be happier.”
While Smith started as a breakout sophomore in the 2015 Class 5 sectional, Berger and Hopkins appeared off the bench for Park Hill, which fell behind early and didn’t recover. The Trojans finished that season after a top player left the team late in the regular season.
Park Hill ended up with 19 wins and a feeling of disappointment. However, the experience could prove valuable if the Trojans hope to make a deep playoff run.
Park Hill has played each of the two teams in the opposite sectional, twice beating Lee’s Summit (13-13) in close Suburban Conference Gold Division matchups while losing by two to North Kansas City (18-8) in overtime back in mid-December.
A win Wednesday would set up a Saturday quarterfinal rematch with one of those two teams, and Park Hill’s seniors hope to use the past to fuel a better finish this time around.
“Being put into that (playoff) situation early on was definitely building us up for this,” Berger said, “and being put in the big games we were early on in the season, it just really helped us develop as players and become the players we are today. It feels really good. We’ve worked really hard for a really long time. Especially for the six seniors, it just feels really, really good.”