Chrisman girls basketball team headed to final four for first time since 1993 with win over Smithville

Bill Althaus
The Examiner

Throughout the William Chrisman girls basketball team’s dramatic postseason run there have been many constants.

Among them are the cool, calm and collected coaching style of Scott Schaefer, the never-say-die attitude of his team and the well-worn T-shirt belonging to sophomore guard Mele Taula’s mother, Meagan.

All those traits were center stage Saturday afternoon on the Bears’ home court as Schaefer’s game plan worked to perfection in a defensive-minded 42-23 Class 5 state quarterfinal win over the Smithville Warriors that punched his team’s ticket to the state final four for the first time since 1993.

William Chrisman players Gia Moore (11), Amanda Szopinski and Krysta McAllister (5) celebrate their 42-23 win over Smithville in a Class 5 state quarterfinal Saturday at Chrisman. The Bears advanced to the state final four for the first time since 1993.

Chrisman (23-5), winners of 16 in a row, will play No. 5-ranked Whitfield (22-4), a 65-50 winner over Cardinal Ritter, at 7 p.m. Thursday in the state semifinals at JQH Arena on the Missouri State University campus in Springfield.

Taula came off the bench in the first quarter and scored four points and grabbed three rebounds and finished with nine points and eight boards, which earned a post-game hug from mom.

“When are you going to wash that T-shirt?” Taula asked her mother.

The answer: “After the final four.”

“She’s worn that T-shirt to every one of our postseason games, starting at district and now she’s superstitious,” Taula said, grinning. “She hasn’t washed it, and she’s going to wear it to the final four. I hope she’s socially distanced from everyone (laughing).”

William Chrisman girls basketball coach Scott Schaefer cuts the final strands of the net as the Bears celebrate their 42-23 win over Smithville in Saturday's Class 5 state quarterfinal. The Bears advanced to their first state final four since 1993 with the win.

While the 19-5 Warriors did everything to slow down senior center Jacque David – who did not play in a Dec. 4 meeting, a 26-20 loss, because of an ACL injury suffered the season before – another senior took control for the Bears early Saturday.

Senior point guard Amanda Szopinski scored four points and played lockdown defense as the Bears led 9-4 after one period.

And though it was early in the game, senior guard Gia Moore hit back-to-back 3-pointers to open up a 15-4 lead and the Bears were never challenged after that.

“Amanda was working so hard – we were all working hard – and I wanted to contribute,” said Moore, who finished the afternoon with those two baskets. “They helped us get that early lead and Coach Schaefer had us fired up to play defense.

“But the big difference between today’s game, and when we played them earlier, was Jacque. She’s our star, and our universe revolves around her. She was attracting so much attention inside, it opened things up for Amanda, Mele and me – and it was just a great team win.”

William Chrisman sophomore Mele Taula, left, dribbles past Smithville defender Allie Andrews in Saturday's Class 5 state quarterfinal game at Chrisman. Taula tallied nine points and eight rebounds to help the Bears rout the Warriors 42-23 and advance to the state final four.

Szopinski, who finished with eight points, attempted to collect her gear and her thoughts on the bench as a net cutting celebration followed the big win.

“You’re going to get me crying,” she said, as tears flowed down her face. “We just won my last home game ever – and we’re going to the final four. We’ve been through so much together and this is just, just the best day of my life.”

After cutting down the net, David joined members of her family for a post-game photo.

“That’s my family – all of them,” said David, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. “And, that’s my family, too.”

She was pointing to the Bears’ bench.

“I’m going to the final four. We’re all going to the final four,” she said, as if she had to repeat the comment to make sure it was true. “This is amazing. Last season, I’m rehabbing my knee and I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to play again. And now, we’re going to the final four.”

Across the court, the gentlemanly Schaefer visited with his family members. The last time he went to the final four he led his 25-0 McPherson team to a Kansas state title in 2005.

William Chrisman senior point guard Amanda Szopinski celebrates the Bears' 42-23 win over Smithville late in the fourth quarter of their Class 5 state quarterfinal. The Bears advanced to the state final four for the first time since 1993.

The last time the Bears went to the state final four was 1993. They were led by coach Sheri Rehmer and Examiner All-Area star LaShena Graham, who went on to play at the University of Colorado.

“Isn’t it great that two teams from the city of Independence are going to the final four?” asked Schaefer, referring to the Van Horn boys team, which downed No. 2-ranked Mexico 91-83 in overtime Friday night to earn its first final four berth since 1983.

“I couldn’t be any prouder of our coaches or our players,” Schaefer said. “We knew what we had to do. I’ve scouted Smithville a couple of times, and our girls went and executed just like I believed they would.”

As the Bears retreated to the locker room, they were greeted by activities director Greg McGhee, who proclaimed, “Chick-fil-A Thursday!”

He has bought the team Chick-fil-A before each postseason game. And between Meagan Taula’s T-shirt, the pregame chicken treat and some coaching mastery, the unstoppable Bears are heading to the final four with a state title in sight.

“This is my first final four,” added McGhee, who was as excited as the players. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but I’m going to find out!”

The William Chrisman girls basketball team poses for a photo following their 42-23 win over Smithville in a Class 5 state quarterfinal Saturday at Chrisman. The Bears advanced to the state final four for the first time since 1993.