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Core Four: Mitchell High School leans on senior leadership heading into state tourney

“That was one of the allures of the job,” said Mitchell coach Cole Knippling, who needed to replace six seniors in his first year last season. “Even though we were graduating everybody, you knew there were kids still coming, too.”

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Mitchell High School seniors, from left, Adaya Plastow, Macy Kempf, Avia Haley and Camryn Krogman pose for a photo ahead of the Kernels first round game against Sioux Falls O'Gorman in the Class AA state tournament beginning on Thursday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The last time the Mitchell High School girls basketball team played Sioux Falls O’Gorman in the Class AA state tournament, the Kernels’ current four senior starters combined for two points.

Macy Kempf went 1-for-2 from the field, while Camryn Krogman and Avia Haley didn’t crack the scoring column in Mitchell’s first-round upset of top-seeded O’Gorman. Adaya Plastow had just wrapped up her season with Ethan.

Since then, those four turned from role players to the backbone of a Mitchell team once again seeking an upset of the Knights at 2:45 p.m. Thursday at the Sanford Pentagon.

“That was one of the allures of the job,” said Mitchell coach Cole Knippling, who needed to replace six seniors in his first year last season. “Even though we were graduating everybody, you knew there were kids still coming, too.”

He knew there’d be a learning curve, but also witnessed the potential when watching Mitchell’s junior varsity games from the stands as a boys assistant coach.

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Kempf, Krogman and Haley all shined in junior varsity minutes, but played sparingly as sophomores in varsity games. Add in Plastow, who played for Class B Mitchell Christian and Ethan, and it was essentially starting from scratch, even if it wasn’t barren of talent.

Knippling hoped they could gain experience through hard-fought wins, but during an 8-13 campaign, it mostly came from heart-breaking losses, including four single-digit defeats. There was an adjustment period from playing a couple of minutes a night, to starting and being the anchor of a team.

“You don’t realize how much those seniors -- when I was a sophomore -- did and how much time they were on,” Haley said. “To be thrown in and be that person who is always out there and leading the team, it was really different.”

Krogman said the chemistry built from years playing alongside Haley and Kempf helped, but it still took time to adjust. They had to learn Knippling’s system, fit into new and bigger roles, while meshing on and off the court.

Their roles became evident as the year progressed, setting up an important offseason which was eventually wiped out by COVID-19. They had a year of starting experience, but Knippling wondered how quickly they could gel after an abnormal summer.

Despite the lack of an offseason, Mitchell’s seniors pointed toward this season as when they truly started to click.

“(At the) beginning of the year, coach really fired us up and lit a fire under our butts, and said, ‘You guys can really do good things,’ ” Haley said. “I think we all looked at each other and realized what we had.”

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For Kempf, it happened during a 67-62 upset win over Brandon Valley on Jan. 2, sparking a 10-game win streak that featured second-half comebacks, close wins and an unselfish brand of basketball.

The learning moments that were taught the next day in practice in 2019-2020 started to happen during games this year, allowing Mitchell to enter the state tournament at 15-6. They weren’t wide-eyed in pressure-packed situations, rather thrived in them.

“After our Brandon Valley game, it showed how we could play and we were able to compete with anybody,” said Kempf, who will play basketball at Mount Marty next year. “After that game, we played well as a team and we needed to keep carrying that on.”
That comes with experience, something Mitchell’s seniors now have in abundance. But it’s also the product of a seemingly perfect on-court fit. While all four can play defense or hit a 3-pointer, their main strengths lie in different areas.

Plastow, an old-school point guard looking to set up her teammates, has enjoyed the faster-paced Class AA. But her enthusiasm rests on her defense, with Knippling telling her, “go get the best player on the other team,” and knowing she’s able to play lockdown defense.

“You don’t get a whole lot of recognition for it, but the hard work you put in behind it when someone who normally scores 20 only scores four (is rewarding),” said Plastow, who will play basketball at Dakota Wesleyan University next year. “It’s kind of a pride thing.”
Meanwhile, Krogman and Kempf lead the Kernels with 12.8 points per game. Kempf is an anchor in the post on both ends, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, while Krogman provides them with a shot creator, who gets to the rim but can still knock down a deep 3. Haley is a pure shooter, averaging a team-high 1.7 3s to go with scoring 7.7 points per contest, and can catch fire on any night. She led Mitchell with 14 points in its SoDak 16 win.

In harmony, their strengths play off each other on both ends of the court. Whether it’s whipping passes around to find an open shooter, or pairing Kempf’s help-side defense with the quickness of Mitchell’s three senior guards.

“I think it makes us hard to beat,” Krogman said. “We’re really good competitors in the paint, and we’re pretty good shooters, so that makes us pretty good all-around.”

For a core who had to quickly grow as juniors, and then progress as seniors after not having an offseason, they’ll get one final weekend to showcase what they’ve built.

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“There’s been so many neat things this year, it’d be a cherry on top,” Knippling said about a deep postseason run. “Even with no offseason, they had a great season. They had a resounding win in front of an amazing crowd in a sweet 16 game.”

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