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McCUTCHEON: Kernels rolling through ESD

The 2013-14 Eastern South Dakota Conference girls’ basketball season is quickly turning into a one-team stroll to the finish line, as Mitchell is blitzing its way by the competition.

The ESD may not be as bad as the Kernels are making it look, but a regular-season test may not come from within the league for Mitchell if the first half of the season is any indication.

But will the Kernels be ready come playoff time?

Mitchell (9-0, 7-0 ESD) is the only ESD team ranked in the Class AA poll, while the other eight schools each have at least a pair of losses in conference play.

While winning the ESD is a goal for any Mitchell team, this girls’ basketball team has higher aspirations following an unexpected collapse on offense in the title game last year. The path to winning the school’s sixth state title is unlikely to go through one of the Kernels’ ESD rivals.

Even with Kerri Young and Kristin Sabers now in college playing at South Dakota State University and Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell still has the best player in the state in guard Macy Miller, who is averaging 28 points per game, and an emerging star in junior forward Taylor Volesky. Prior to the start of the regular season, Miller said people are making a mistake by overlooking the Kernels.

Through nine games this season, Mitchell is outscoring its opponents by an average of 17 points per game with the closest contest coming in a seven-point win on the road against Harrisburg.

Of the 18 teams in Class AA, eight have winning records, and Mitchell plays just six more games against these teams, but has already beaten two of them.

Mitchell is 9-0 (7-0 ESD) and ranked No. 2 in the state’s top class. The Kernels have one game left on the schedule against a team currently ranked, which is against No. 5 Sioux Falls O’Gorman (6-3) at 3:30 p.m. today in Sioux Falls.

Outside of Brookings and a non-conference clash with Spearfish, the rest of the Kernels’ schedule is filled with teams they have already topped.

A win over the Knights today could be the biggest hurdle Mitchell faces en route to an undefeated regular season.

Kernel coach Wes Morgan said despite some lopsided scores, his girls are battling out there each night and they are fighting for every win.

The storyline is familiar, as the Kernels ran through much of the 2012-13 season, when Mitchell’s slimmest margin of victory was 15 points. Last year, the Kernels were 20-3 in the regular season, as they dropped all three of their games decided by 10 or fewer points.

The Mitchell schedule last year included matchups against eventual No. 2 seed Sioux Falls Washington and 2012-13 Class AA champion Sioux Falls Lincoln. The Kernels also had a pair of losses in the regular season to ESD rival and top-seeded Aberdeen.

The flipside is that while Washington and other top Class AA teams will be unfamiliar to Mitchell come playoff time, the Kernels will also be a fresh challenge to whomever has to play them at the end of the year.

While there is something to say for being battle tested heading into the playoffs, the neutral court and state tournament nerves are likely to play a big role.

Last year, being familiar with Sioux Falls Lincoln after a regular season win over the Patriots did very little for Mitchell in a championship game loss.

Outside of Miller and Volesky, the Kernels have little big-game experience this season with a new supporting crew. The role players for Mitchell have looked more confident and comfortable with the offense in recent games. In a recent game against Watertown, Mitchell had four players score in double figures for the first time this year, while Miller still scored her usual 27 points.

Morgan sees the advantage of some one-sided games in getting playing time and building the confidence for some of his less experienced players.

The Kernels will need to find those other sources of scoring, if for some reason Miller or Volesky were to have an off night. Miller and Volesky currently account for 44 of Mitchell’s 63.6 points per game.

A perfect record heading into the state tournament may not spell a No. 1 seed, as the Kernels do not play top-ranked Washington in the regular season. Given the disparity in strength of schedule, Mitchell would likely remain at best a No. 2 seed, unless the Warriors suffer an unexpected drought during the second half of the season.

Under the state’s seeding system, Mitchell will get punished for the record of the teams it beat. With little potential to pick up quality wins the rest of the way, it is difficult to project where Mitchell in the seeding heading into the state tournament, if they end up getting there.

Mitchell would be a No. 2 seed behind Washington (9-0) based on seed points if the state tournament were to start today. The Kernels have 44.33 seed points, while the Warriors are at an even 45. Sturgis Brown (8-1) would be third with 43 points.