MARSHALL – When the Michigan Associated Press girls’ basketball poll was released this week, Marshall was notably absent in the Class B rankings.
Not only were the 16-1 Redhawks not among the top 10 teams listed, they have yet to secure enough votes to receive an honorable mention nod. And Marshall’s lone loss came to sixth-ranked Williamston in the second week of the season.
Still, don’t expect Marshall head coach Sal Konkle or any of her players to get bent out of shape about the lack of recognition at the state level.
“I know what we’re capable of and what we can do and can’t do. But for the girls it would be nice for them to see their hard work pay off,” Konkle said. “The people I care about in the basketball world know we’re pretty good.”
Marshall is having perhaps one of the program’s strongest seasons, yet very few outside of Southwest Michigan even know about it. And the Redhawks are doing it without a superstar, but instead, a collection of gritty players who understand their roles.
The Interstate Eight Conference, in its inaugural season as a league, knows full well how talented the Redhawks are. On Friday night, Marshall (11-0 I-8) will face Jackson Northwest (14-3 overall, 10-1 I-8) — essentially for the conference championship.
“Every year is a new blend of kids, and I think this year they’ve blended so well. We’ve had four or five different kids lead us in scoring,” Konkle said. “I think we’re as good as we’ve ever been. I don’t think we have the individuals we’ve had in the past, but as a team, we’re pretty darn good.”
On the stat sheet, sophomore Nikki Tucker is the closest thing the Redhawks have to a star. One of six sophomores on the roster, she’s averaging a team-best 11.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
“Looking at the stats, it’s so consistent. Some teams have one player you focus on,” Tucker said. “But with our team, if one girl is down, it could be anybody on the team; I know I can pass to them and we’ll make plays together. It’s great to have a team I can rely on.”
Among the six sophomores is Jill Konkle, who is averaging 9.0 points per contest. She’s also the daughter of head coach Sal Konkle.
“I try not to think about it, but then again I know I have to keep the role and keep the name going,” Jill Konkle said. “I call her mom. I asked her if she wanted coach, Sal or mom, she said, ‘Mom is good.’ It means a lot to me having her as a coach.”
Sal Konkle conceded it can be difficult at times coaching her daughter, due to outside perceptions and her own high expectations for Jill.
“It’s a big balancing act and (assistant coach) Lance (Hawblitz) is a big part of helping it balance. If I’m bad cop to Jill, he’s usually good cop,” Sal Konkle said. “I am the hardest on her, no doubt. I’ve been waiting for this a long time, but on the other hand, it might be easier when it’s over. For Jill, the social stigma of being the coach’s daughter can be hard at times, but she deals with it well. She’s tough.”
Along with the mother-daughter dynamic, the Redhawks’ feature a pair of former Albion High School athletes in senior’s Cortazia Wilson and Ca’Tina Lewis. The duo came to Marshall last year as part of a merger following the closure of Albion High School. Wilson is a key role player off the bench who coaches said is the best athlete on the team.
“It tends to bring a new nuance to the team, more so for the social aspect than a basketball aspect,” Sal Konkle said. “Once we get on the basketball court we’re basketball players. But I think the social aspect has been enlightening for both the Albion kids and Marshall kids.”
Sal Konkle also sang the praise of junior point guard Carlee Long, who leads the area in assists at 3.3 per game.
“People at the beginning of the season didn’t expect her to be what she is for our team,” Sal Konkle said. “She’s our best defender and point guard. She can play. It’s another young kid doing what we need to make our team work. She could shoot more. But she’s doing what she knows we need her to do to be successful.”
Logan Kiessling is a three-year varsity member and one of four seniors on the squad. She played on the Marshall team that reached the Class B state quarterfinal in 2013, and was a member of last year’s team that went 16-4 before being ousted in the first round of districts.
Second on the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game, Kiessling has embraced her leadership role on a team that has a unique collection of talent.
“I just learned a lot from the past girls that I looked up to, and I hope the sophomores now look up to me,” said Kiessling. “I know we’re a team, but other than that we’re so close. It’s more like a family. They’re like my sisters, and we all get along great, on and off the court.”
Being unranked certainly has added some fuel to Marshall’s fire. But the Redhawks enjoyed a state ranking last season, which ended with an abrupt exit from the state tournament.
Now the team has its eyes set on a league title before making what it hopes is a long postseason run to the Michigan State University Breslin Center for a return to the state finals for the first time since 1981.
“Getting beat in the first round was really upsetting, especially my freshman year playing with all those seniors,” Jill Konkle said. “But knowing that feeling, I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. I want to get a district title, I want to get a regional title and I want to make it to Breslin.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NickJBuckley