Youthful experience: Eagles ready for another strong freshman class

Bill Althaus
Grain Valley basketball players, from left, McKenah Sears, Ella Clyman, Grace Slaughter and Ella Quirarte have a post practice visit with coach Randy Draper following Tuesday morning's practice session in the high school gymnasium.

McKenah Sears’ lifelong dream is finally coming true.

The freshman basketball standout has finally arrived at Grain Valley High School and coach Randy Draper is set to give her the keys to run the Eagles’ offense.

And she won’t be alone as fellow freshman Ella Quirarte and sophomore returnees Ella Clyman and Co-Examiner Player of the Year Grace Slaughter will round out Draper’s young, but oh, so experienced kiddie corps, who hope to make some noise once the 2020-21 basketball season begins play.

“I have dreamed of playing high school basketball forever,” Sears said after Tuesday morning’s practice session. “I got to third grade, then fourth grade and fifth grade and I’m thinking, ‘Is it ever going to get here?’ And now, it’s here and I am so excited.”

Quirarte shares her enthusiasm.

“I’ve dreamed about it too,” Quirarte said, “especially after last season when Grace and Ella were freshmen and had such great seasons. This year, we’re going to be young, but with McKenah and Grace and Ella, there’s not going to be a lot of pressure being an underclassman, because so many of us are going to be underclassmen.”

And as Draper is quick to point out, underclassmen with a world of experience on the court.

“We will be young, but we will be talented,” Draper said, as you could see the twinkle in his eyes meant he was smiling under his mask. “Grace has already played an entire high school season worth of games with her AAU team – they’re going to Iowa this weekend – and the other girls have played so much quality AAU ball.

“And everyone who followed us knows what Grace and Ella did last year, and we’re getting so many new players from that undefeated eighth grade team.

“We have the chance to be good next year – and really good for many years after that.”

Add senior returnees Jordyn Weems and Malia Gutierrez into the mix and the veteran coach has the best of all basketball worlds.

“We lost a couple of very good seniors to graduation, but with Jordyn and Malia coming back, we have that strong senior leadership and Grace and Ella have worked so hard this offseason that they are even better than they were last year.”

Which might be bad news for the Eagles’ opponents.

“I think we’re really going to have a strong team, even though we are going to be so young,” said Slaughter, who recently verbally committed to play at Missouri. “You know, we’ve got 13- and 14-year-olds who will be playing against 18-year-olds and that doesn’t happen in AAU ball.

“You play against kids your own age, but our younger players have so much experience and talent that they’re going to be fine playing against the older kids because they know how to play the game and won’t be intimidated.”

Clyman agreed.

“It took me a while to get used to playing against bigger, stronger players,” the sophomore center said, “but we play as a team, and everyone has a role, and we got so much stronger as the season went on. We were a different team, a better team, at the end of the season.”

And that’s what Draper believes will happen this season.

“You want to be swinging the biggest stick at the end of the season,” Draper said, “and I think that’s what this team will be doing. I can’t wait.”