Sawyer Stoebner’s calmness on the court doesn’t resemble someone who has ever had nerves on the hardwood, let alone a player who says she gets nervous before every game.
Once the ball is tipped, her nerves dissipate, and it’s easy to forget she’s only seven games (five starts) into her high school career. But it wasn’t always this way.
Her long arms, big hands and versatility on the court led to her playing on the freshman, sophomore and junior varsity team after Christmas break as an eighth-grader last year. Coach Cole Knippling hoped to mentally prepare her for varsity minutes. Stoebner, admittedly, oftentimes got into her own head and freaked herself out on the court.
The mental breakthrough came during summer practices. For as much as Mitchell’s four senior starters have helped her on the court, they also talked to her about keeping an even-keeled mentality during games.
“They’ve helped me a lot and answered a lot of questions I’ve had, like about the game and about situations that I don’t know how to play with,” Stoebner said. “They’re really encouraging and inspire me to push myself to be (the best version of myself).”
Stoebner called it “a dream” to be a starter, skyrocketing past her expectations of splitting time between junior varsity and varsity this year. Knippling touts her work ethic, which has already yielded results.
That comes from personal motivation. Stoebner wants to be the next Macy Miller.
“Macy Miller, I look up to her,” Stoebner said. “She’s an amazing player. She’s always been. I want to be as good as she is.”
She idolizes the former Kernel and South Dakota State University standout, but it’s more than Miller’s all-around ability on the court. Stoebner also mentions her being a good teammate, strong competitor, and of course, staying calm on the court.
“She was able to do everything,” Stoebner said. “She was a point guard, but she was big enough to post up. She was always looking to score, always had amazing passes. She was a great teammate and she always kept her head.”
As a freshman, Stoebner has shown her own diverse skill set. Her handles, ability as a five-position defender and rebounder forced her into the starting lineup after two games. She credits her mother and former Northern State University basketball player, Toni Schmidt, for teaching her at a young age to impact all facets of the game.
It led to a seamless transition into the starting lineup, where Stoebner is asked to excel in a complementary role rather than being a focal point. But by fitting in, she’s stood out.
“I think she’s added a new element,” Knippling said. “You think about what’s different from last year to this year … she wasn’t even on varsity last year. I think the biggest pluses from her, her athleticism and her length adds something.”
With Stoebner, the entire starting lineup can grab a rebound and push the pace. Or in a 69-46 win over Huron on Saturday, the Kernels were able to switch on every screen since everyone is able to guard the perimeter and post.
Stoebner, who said playing with older and bigger players last year helped her progression, has recorded 6.3 points, 5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. She’s shooting 57.6 percent from the field (63.3 2-point shooting).
“I feel like I’m there to open things up for the rest of the players,” Stoebner said. “I’ll seal for Camryn (Krogman). I’ll post up for Macy (Kempf). My assists and seals, I feel, really help with our offense. The defense, just deflections and steals really get us going.”
Less than halfway through the season, Stoebner has gone from a bench role to playing crucial minutes down the stretch. In a 49-48 loss to Thunder Basin (Wyo.), Knippling drew up a play to get Stoebner a layup on Mitchell’s final possession, though it ended with a turnover before she touched the ball.
It’s been earned trust, with the way she handles pressure and seemingly improves every game. As evident as any improvement, Stoebner struggled early in the season with travels when she’d try to make a move but take a step before putting the ball on the floor. Against Huron, she’d make the same move with the ball, and get past a defender without traveling.
It’s game-by-game growth that makes Knippling excited about her potential, especially as the only returning starter for next season. Right now, she’s learning how to efficiently score, so in the future, she can become a focal point like the seniors who have helped her this year.
“It’s one of those things, next year, everybody’s roles will have to grow, especially hers,” Knippling said. “She’ll have to become a little bit of the focal point offensively. This year, she’s still trying to find her game and figure out how she can score. I think she’s just scratching the surface.”
Mitchell (5-2) hosts Pierre at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Corn Palace.