Walk into Crane High School’s dusty little gym, and there’s nothing that screams big-time girls basketball program.
The practice jerseys don’t quite match. There’s some mud on one of the baselines that somebody tracked in. The basketballs resting on the stage at one end are old and nicked up. The floor, even after being swept, is a little slick.
But when the lights come on for game time and the Lady Pirates start sending their waves of players at the opponent, there’s no mistaking just how big-time the defending Class 2 champions are.
That’s big-time enough to compete with nearly any team in Missouri, no matter how big or small.
Starting with a state semifinal game against New Franklin Thursday in Columbia, Crane will try to defend last year’s championship. The Lady Pirates will be the overwhelming favorites, and for good reason.
“We’ve definitely had that target on our back, and we’ve known that since last year, to be honest,” senior Riley Israel said. “I don’t think it took us long this year to embrace that. We had to be ready to go from the start.
“And that makes us the team we are. You are what you do, and we’ve competed hard all season.”
Crane (29-1) has wins this year over Class 5 teams Parkview, Nixa and Kickapoo, Class 4 Marshfield, Class 3 Ash Grove and defending Class 1 champion Walnut Grove. The Lady Pirates have also beaten Olathe East, which plays in the largest of Kansas’ six classes and has an enrollment larger than the population of the city of Crane. The only loss came to Nixa a couple of weeks after Crane won the first meeting between the teams.
Nixa and Parkview both won their second straight district titles this year while Marshfield also won its district. Ash Grove and Walnut Grove are in their respective final fours, and the closest a Class 2 team has gotten to the Lady Pirates this season is 17 points.
That came Saturday in Crane’s 73-56 win over Bakersfield. And the Lady Pirates missed 16 free throws and all but stopped trying to score with more than six minutes left in the game and a 21-point lead over a team that finished 23-5.
“Coach (Billy) Redus and I sat down a couple years ago, and we knew the talent level we had coming in,” Crane coach Jeremy Mullins said. “Our schedule has been a tremendous help to these girls because they’ve beaten teams better than what they’ve played in Class 2.”
It’s how Crane beats teams that’s maybe the most impressive component of the Lady Pirates’ success.
Mullins runs 10 players in and out, subbing two, three, four and even five at a time with little drop in the level of play. It’s a luxury not afforded to many Class 5 programs, not to mention Crane’s foes at the Class 2 level.
Against Bakersfield, Crane’s bench scored 36 points. Sophomore Shelby Roder, a 5-foot-2 firecracker at the top of Crane’s press, had three steals off the bench and in one stretch forced three consecutive Bakersfield turnovers as the Lady Pirates put the game away.
“I think (the depth) helps us out a lot. If the first five maybe isn’t playing well, we know we can come in and pick it up,” Roder said. “It’s a lot of fun. Each group is different, and I think teams have trouble adjusting to that.”
Eight Lady Pirates average between six and 15 points a game, led by sophomore Emma Lander’s 15.1. Lander also leads the team in rebounding at 7.7 per game. Crane averages 68.2 points a game as a team, and only Lander averages more than 9.5 points a game.
“I’m thankful for (the depth),” Israel said. “Some girls might not like it because it means they might not get as much playing time, but everyone has accepted their roles. It’s made us better.”
The Lady Pirates also draw inspiration from their rabid fans, who have traveled near and far the last two seasons to watch the team play.
Crane supporters were lined up outside Drury University’s O’Reilly Family Event Center more than an hour before Saturday’s game.
Mullins, without naming names, said he’s seen some teams shrink from the moment in the face of Crane’s overwhelming pressure.
“The crowd gets into it when we’ve made runs, and we’ve had teams step back,” Mullins said.
The Lady Pirates will need to make one more surge in Columbia. Thursday’s opponent, New Franklin, comes in 28-1. One the other side of the bracket are Skyline, which Crane beat in last year’s semifinals, and New Haven, which lost to Crane in last year’s state championship game.
“I think (trying to defend the title) makes this a lot more fun,” Lander said. “Last year we were kind of the underdog and we worked our way up. Now, it’s about holding that standard and just growing as a team.”