The Spartans were eliminated from the playoffs by Kirkwood 52-39 in the quarterfinals at Hyland Arena on the Lindenwood University campus, but the 22-7 season was one that brought Spartans back among the elite in St. Charles County basketball circles.
“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish with this season,” Howell Central coach Hayley Leake said. “Going towards the end of the season we had very good focus not just going into that (quarterfinal) game but also going into sectional play.”
Against 2017 Final Four participant Kirkwood, the Spartans were down just 11-5 after first quarter before Kirkwood caught fire in the second quarter.
The Pioneers behind the hot-shooting of standout Jayla Everett pushed out to a 23-12 lead late in the first half and never led Central get close the rest of the way.
“We knew going in that Kirkwood was going to be a very, very tough team and a tough game and the number one thing we wanted to do was make every thing they did difficult,” Leake said. “I think my girls did that and obviously they made a few runs but I think my girls continued to fight and really maximize what they could bring to the floor that night.”
Junior forward Yanni Curry led the Spartans with 14 points and sophomore guard Azaria Hulbert was steady with nine points.
Howell Central started its playoff run with a district semifinal win over over Timberland (37-20) and then defeated Fort Zumwalt West 53-40 for the Class 5, District 8 championship at home on March 2.
Curry and Hulbert led the Spartans with 16 and 13 points respectively.
Five days later, the Spartans knocked off Class 5 power Jefferson City 35-34 in the sectional round at Maryville University.
In the Jefferson City upset, it was junior guard Lauren Ebert that paved the way as Ebert knocked down four three-pointers for 12 points. Curry scored seven points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Curry, Hulbert, and Ebert all were key in helping the Spartans not only win but jell into a strong unit on the court this winter.
“One of the things about this year that made this team strong is that we felt like any player on a given night could step up and be that player for us,” Leake said.
Other key contributors to Central’s strong season were senior forward Hannah Currant, who led the club in rebounding, and senior guard Makenzie Schierding.
Schierding, who rebounded from a crushing ACL knee injury last year, provided energy and leadership that helped the Spartans through the regular season and in the playoffs.
“All of the things she does are immeasurables,” Leake said. “You’re not going to be able to pick them up in stats all the time but she has been such a force for us and it just speaks to her commitment to work that was needed to go into rehab putting herself into position to help her team again this year.”
Leake said that losing the quarterfinal game was not as hard as the fact that she would not get to coach this group again. Especially the seniors Currant, Schierding, Aleuria Alderson, and Ashley Roland.
“I think the things that you miss when that final buzzer sounds is that you in that capacity are not going to have the opportunity continue the journey on and miss the experiences and the moments,” Leake said. “They know that were are always going to be family and the hardest is just knowing the journey has to end.”
Making a quarterfinal appearance for the first time since 2012, Leake believes that the program is definitely back on the radar and that the bar has been raised back up for good season in the near future.
“It do think what it’s done is raise the bar,” Leake said. “The standard of what this program is about and what it expects. That is a credit to an amazing senior class who started this as freshmen and saw it all the way through four years.”