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Backcourt keys Neuqua Valley
win over Hinsdale Central

New post players show promise in season-opener


By Matt Le Cren
DARIEN – Division I guards Kai Moon and Myia Starks will be the linchpins to any success Neuqua Valley has early in the season.
But the Wildcats know that their goal of enjoying another 20-win season hinges on how well they develop their inexperienced post players.
One game into the season, there is much more than a glimmer of hope.
As expected, Moon and Starks accounted for nearly half of Neuqua Valley’s offense in Thursday’s season opener, but junior center Makinzie DeHaan and senior forward Courtlyn Smith combined to score 20 points on 9-for-9 shooting as the Wildcats defeated Hinsdale Central 64-49 at the Hinsdale South Tip-Off Tournament.
“As we said in the preseason, there are going to be a litany of questions that we have to answer,” Neuqua Valley coach Mike Williams said. “The guards are going to do well, but we’ve got a lot of young kids on the court.
“I thought there were some good things that happened, and every year it’s the same old routine. We always play a lot of kids (in the opener) and try to figure out rotations.”
Moon, who just signed with Binghamton University (Vestal, N.Y.) and the Northern Illinois-bound Starks answered any questions about their potential -- the four-year varsity standouts will keep the Wildcats in most games. Their steady play at both ends of the floor and leadership will be vital for a squad with only one other returning player with significant varsity experience, junior forward Megan Keefer.
“It’s definitely more settling to know you have those people backing you up along the way,” DeHaan said. “If you don’t get something, they’ll help you and I know I can always count on them to do the right thing and say the right thing.”
Moon made only 5-of-16 shots but tallied a team-high 16 points to go with seven steals and three assists. Starks chipped in 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
More importantly, they tried their best to get everyone involved in the offense, which showed promise. The Wildcats passed the ball well, with six different players registering assists, and shot 50 percent from the floor.
“I think we were eager to get a first game in,” Moon said. “Practicing against each other a lot is great and we’re figuring out each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
“We’ve got some new people on the team and people are stepping into different roles, so getting out and playing against another team together was really helpful for us. Obviously, we need to come out better against Montini (Friday).”
Montini, which routed Hinsdale Central (0-2) Tuesday, will be heavily favored to beat Neuqua Valley tonight. But the Wildcats are more concerned with integrating players like Smith and DeHaan.
Smith (4-for-4 from the field, 1-for-2 from the line, 9 points) was a little-used backup to Bryce Menendez the past two seasons, while DeHaan (5-5, 1-1, 11) transferred from Waubonsie Valley, which won only one game last winter.
Both players are 5-foot-10, relatively small by Neuqua Valley standards, and both were plagued by foul trouble against the Red Devils. Smith, who had nine points, three boards and two steals, fouled out in the third quarter; DeHaan picked up four fouls.
“We’re going to have to do a better job in the post area, and I think it will come,” Williams said. “We’ve got the athletes to do it, but obviously our guards are the key right now.
“Makinzie showed a little bit. We’ve got to keep her and Courtlyn on the floor without the foul trouble. That’s going to be the key.”
Moon likes what she sees so far.
“I think Makinzie and Courtlyn are going to be huge for us this season,” Moon said. “Obviously, as a first game it was ugly. The refs were calling it pretty tight, so I don’t think that worked to our advantage at all. But I think (DeHaan and Smith) are really going to be tough (later) in the season.
“Makinzie (excels) with her rebounding ability. They run the floor pretty well, even if it’s only for certain spurts at a time. Courtlyn is a great rebounder; she has some good post moves down low. And I think as the season goes on and they continue to develop, we’re going to see some great things out of them.”
DeHaan has already seen as many victories as she did last season, when she started at Waubonsie Valley.
The move to Neuqua Valley has been a big step up in class for DeHaan, who did not know what to expect.
“I’m used to starting at my old school. But this program is definitely more talented, and they’re known for winning more games," she said. "So I just came, and I worked my butt off, and I was just hoping that it would pay off.”
It did often enough against the Red Devils, who never led but made the Wildcats work for their points.
Paige Bareck scored 10 of her game-high 24 points in the third quarter to cut an 11-point deficit to 47-45 after the last of her five three-pointers.
But Starks split a pair of free throws with 7.5 seconds left in the third quarter, then opened the fourth quarter by finding DeHaan for a three-point play.
That was the start of an 8-0 run by the Wildcats that also saw DeHaan take a charge from Bareck, who was forced to leave the game after the collision with a leg cramp.
“That’s actually surprising for me,” DeHaan said of her performance. “I definitely came into this game very nervous, but I was like, ‘I’m just going to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens.’”
DeHaan didn’t know what to expect when she transferred.
“It was definitely intimidating at first with all the good players you hear about,” she said. “I grew up watching Myia and Kai, but the girls are so welcoming. Coach Williams definitely made the adjustment easier for me, and it was still intimidating even though they were nice.”
Now that she has a game under her belt, DeHaan is more comfortable, and Moon is glad to have her on the team.
“I think she’s adjusted very well,” Moon said. “Coming in right off the bat is difficult, figuring out how the defense works and the offense.
“Obviously, Neuqua and Waubonsie -- in terms of the competitiveness and the level we compete at -- (are) very different. But even when we played against her at Waubonsie, she showed signs of great leadership and showed that she could really play.
“When Bryce left, we were thinking if only we could have one more post player, and we got her. She’s going to be huge for us this season.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains. The Wildcats have one of their smallest teams in years and will be underdogs against taller teams.
“It’s definitely going to be difficult for us as posts because we’re not as big as normal posts are, but it’s really going to come down to the fact of how tough we’re going to be,” DeHaan said. “If we can have that toughness and work together, we’ll be better.”
Jada Harvey added five points, four rebounds and two steals for Neuqua Valley, which also received three points, four boards and two assists from Keefer.
Hinsdale Central figures to be better later in the season.
The Red Devils are adjusting to life without their all-time leading scorer Gabrielle Rush, who averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds a year ago.
Bareck, a 5-foot-9 junior guard, has averaged 19.5 points in the first two games, while 5-foot-10 forward Riley Burr could emerge as a scoring threat. Burr had 14 points against Neuqua Valley.
“We’re kind of a work in progress,” Hinsdale Central coach Tom McKenna said. “I thought we played a lot better than we did the other day, but I thought (Neuqua’s) quickness bothered us.
“I was happy because we got killed the other day and we did much better, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. We put pressure on them, but we never made them totally uncomfortable.”
Alex Hughes and Elle Schaefer scored four points each for Hinsdale Central, which will need to be more balanced than it was with Rush.
“I always say it’s not how many players you lost; it’s how many points you lost,” McKenna noted. “We lost 25 points. That’s a lot of points to fill, and we’re trying to find that. But I think they’ll be fine.”
Today's Schedule: Season Schedule