Look around St. Cecilia’s Chapman Gymnasium.
There are plenty of banners from the Bluehawks’ and Hawkettes’ past successes. There’s even the newest addition from March’s 2019 Class C-2 girls state basketball championship.
But there’s one that’s not yet up: the C-2 state volleyball runner-up banner the Hawkettes were consoled with in early November after being swept by Grand Island Central Catholic in the teams’ fourth meeting of the season.
It’s not so much that the Hawkettes aren’t thankful, even after finishing second to a Centennial Conference rival they’d beaten three times prior to the state final. It’s that they’re extra motivated for basketball season, where they’re the reigning champions after a 26-1 campaign in coach Greg Berndt’s third year at the helm.
“They look pretty determined,” said Berndt, whose team is composed of a handful of volleyball players. “That was a tough way to end their season. I think it was tough for the week or so following (the state volleyball tournament), but the good thing is they’re competitive and they get to get back out and do something else they really enjoy, which is basketball.”
Much like Alan VanCura’s volleyball team this fall, Berndt’s basketball team was practically unstoppable on the hardwood last winter.
The Hawkettes’ one blemish on their record was a loss to Class B state champ Northwest. And after surviving in overtime in the state semifinals against Oakland-Craig, St. Cecilia crowned themselves champs with a 19-point victory in the championship against old rival Crofton.
Repeating as champion is in the back of the Hawkettes’ minds, sure. The good thing is, they’ll be tested right out of the gate.
St. Cecilia’s first week features games with conference foes Columbus Scotus and Bishop Neumann, the defending C-1 champion. The Hawkettes also have dates with a towering Fillmore Central, 2018 champ Superior, and Northwest.
“Our gaze doesn’t get too far ahead,” Berndt said. “We do have a team with a lot of experience that’s been down to three state tournaments and won one, so it’s a group that’s capable of getting to state and seeing what happens there. We’re just going to try and stay as narrow-focused as possible.”
The Hawkettes graduated a pair of seniors last season, including 2018-19 Tribland player of the year Lexi Vertin who averaged 10.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists and was a three-year starter.
But the core of the team now resides in a larger senior class that’s comprised of Makenna Asher, Tori Thomas, Chloe McCauley, and Natalie Kissinger.
Thomas and Asher were starters averaging 9.4 and 8.8 points per game, respectively, while Kissinger (5.4 ppg) mostly came off the bench and hit numerous clutch shots for the Hawkettes, and McCauley was a defensive asset.
Junior Katharine Hamburger (5.1 ppg) is expected to take on a larger role, much like she did on the volleyball court, and Bailey Kissinger is now a sophomore after she led STC with 12.7 points per game as a freshman.
“Last year was the tip of the iceberg as far as what you’re going to see from (Bailey),” Berndt said. “She’s a very talented basketball player. She’s an even better kid with a tremendous work ethic and she’s going to have a great high school career. It’s going to be exciting to see what she can do as she steps into more of that point guard role. We’ll see how she takes the reins there.”
Filling the scoring void left by Vertin and Gracie Daly shouldn’t be an issue either, Berndt said.
“I think it’ll happen pretty organically,” he said. “I don’t think anybody feels like they have to be the person to step up. Hopefully, the scoring is going to take care of itself.”
Defense was where St. Cecilia hounded opponents last year, and it led to points on the other end. Berndt was quoted multiple times after wins last year saying “We like to think we’re not stuck in there with them. They’re stuck in there with us,” referring to the Hawkettes’ defensive prowess.
“I’d say that’s still our mentality,” Berndt. “We’ve got a really good group of competitors that aren’t going to back down to anybody…We want to make things really difficult for other teams.”
Berndt did say program numbers are a bit down from where they were last year, but attributed it to “some classes just aren’t basketball classes.” He still feels like the Hawkettes have the depth necessary for a deep run, especially after a healthy volleyball season.
That bitter loss a month ago in Devaney could be avenged on the basketball court come February.
“It never hurts when the team you lose to in that final is in your subdistrict,” Berndt said. “I don’t necessarily need to bring that up or draw from it. The seniors know this is their last time competing as a team, so I think there is a lot of motivation to get back to state to kind of chase that experience we had last year.”