All Grown Up: Four NH seniors have led team since freshmen year

Bobby "Butch" Burney | News-Telegram Sports Editor

January 27, 2004 -- BIRTHRIGHT -- After a decades-old tradition of winning that includes three straight state championships from 1958-60, the North Hopkins Lady Panthers were in an unusual position three years ago.

Nobody wanted to play. At least, nobody in grades 10-12.

Coach Tim Menke, whose teams had won four consecutive district titles in the late '90s, had just seven girls on that 2000-01 varsity team. And they were all freshmen.

"Losing, a lot of losing, is what we went through," said Mary Casey, one of those seven freshmen. "It was kind of intimidating. We didn't have anyone on the team older than us."

They won just five games that year. They more than doubled their win total each of the next two years -- 12 games as sophomores and 26 as juniors. If they beat Campbell tonight, the Lady Panthers will match last year's win total and keep alive their Top 10 ranking as well as their goal of winning district and going deep into the playoffs.

It was an extremely tough situation for those players three years ago. For the four seniors who are still playing at North Hopkins -- Casey, Lindsey Horne, Amy Akerhielm and Hope Harber -- they are reaping the benefits of their experience this season with a 25-2 record (5-0 in district) and a No. 9 state ranking.

"It was hard on varsity as freshmen," said Horne. "I think it got a little bit easier every year, but this year is when we're most comfortable since we have more experience."

Menke says this team could be the best he's had in 13 years at North Hopkins. But, he doesn't want to go through again what happened three years ago.

"Our numbers got way down, and we just didn't have any seniors, any juniors or any sophomores playing. You don't want that happening, but it happened to us," he explained. "We haven't had a senior night in three years.

"Consequently, these kids had to start. To their credit, they never got so discouraged that they couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was very difficult. You're not supposed to win as freshmen, and we didn't."

They are this year, though.

They have gone 22-0 against schools in Class 1A and 2A, with their only losses coming in the Lovelady Tournament against Class 5A A&M Consolidated and Class 3A Crockett. Since then, they have put together a 19 straight wins. Offensively, they are averaging almost 60 points per game while giving up about 38.

Since District 19-1A play started, their closest game has been a 21-point victory over Fruitvale. It's one of their goals to keep teams from scoring more than 25 points in district, and they haven't given up more than 29 points in a 19-1A game.

"Mainly, we want to keep them from scoring 25 points," said Horne, the team's point guard. "We want to score 100, but Coach Menke pulls us off the press. We want to score 100, but we don't really get the chance to."

Menke pulls them off because he remembers three years ago when his team was outmanned. He has watched the girls mature and get better physically as well as mentally.

"I really liked the team last year, but this year's team plays a lot better defense, and as the kids alluded to, we don't have a difficult time scoring," he said. "We shot poorly the other night against Boles and we still scored 61 points.

"This is our best defensive team since I've been here in 13 years. We've really concentrated on our defense this year and our rebounding."

How complete is the team? When asked what their best attribute is, the four seniors give about six different answers:

"Our offense. Our defense is pretty good. We have a lot of quickness. We're all fast. There's a lot of people on our team that can shoot. We work well together."

Menke said it's a matter of his four seniors playing their best this season.

"The thing I thing I'm most encouraged about with this group of seniors is that they're all playing the best basketball of their careers," Menke said. "That doesn't always happen with seniors. A lot of times they'll tail off so that their junior year is their best year. That hasn't happened here."

He gave a rundown of the four:

iLindsey Horne, daughter of R.A. Horne and Laurie Ely, is the team's point guard and assist leader.

iHope Harber, daughter of Amanda Smith and David Moss, is an undersized post who uses her quickness to beat her opponent down the floor for fast break buckets. He also called her a "shut down defender."

iMary Casey, daughter of Doris and Troy Casey, guards the opponent's best perimeter player and plays the wing on offense.

iAmy Akerhielm, the daughter of Richard and Sharon Akerhielm, comes off the bench to give the team a spark at either the wing or post positions.

"It's been a fun group of kids. No egos. We don't have kids who worry about how many points they score," Menke explained. "When your best players are your hardest workers, that's when you're successful.

"We're fortunate because we have a lot of good players and they all work hard. We don't really have anyone who is not working hard on this group."

All four of the seniors played on the district championship volleyball team and Casey was a member of the Class 1A state championship cross country squad along with fellow basketball members junior Sara Weir and freshmen Ebbonye Johnson and Chauncey Harber. Rounding out the basketball squad are sophomores Katy Williams and Elizabeth McPherson.

"We're just trying to succeed in every thing this year," Casey said. "We're doing pretty well so far."

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