February 17, 2014 10:37:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- There are many ways to win a championship.
Individuals can emerge to play key roles at key moments, or teams can display just the right chemistry to feed off the collective strengths of their players.
The Starkville Academy girls and the Immanuel Christian School boys basketball teams showed Saturday both ways work just fine.
Buoyed by the performances of Anna McKell and KC Cunningham, the Lady Volunteers and the Rams earned Mississippi Association of Independent Schools titles. McKell had 21 points to lead Starkville Academy to a 48-40 victory against Hillcrest Christian in the Class AAA, Division II championship, while Cunningham poured in 22 points to lead Immanuel Christian to an 82-63 victory against Kemper Academy for the Class A North Central title.
For their accomplishments, McKell and Cunningham are The Dispatch's co-Prep Players of the Week.
Starkville Academy coach Glenn Schmidt's attributes McKell's growth as a player to maturity. A year ago, McKell was a smaller piece to a puzzle that included a starting five of Tiffany Huddleston, Anna Lea Little, Maggie Proffitt, Nora Kathryn Carroll, and Sallie Kate Richardson. Those five players played so well together in leading the Lady Volunteers to their second-straight sweep of the MAIS Class AAA, Division II, Class AAA, and overall state titles. McKell didn't get to enjoy the second part of the run as an active player due to a collarbone injury that ended her season.
This season, with the loss of Huddleston, Little, and Proffitt to graduation, Schmidt knew she needed someone to step up to complement seniors Richardson and Carroll. A season-ending injury to senior guard Maridee Higginbotham made it more important for another player to emerge as a scoring threat so defenses wouldn't be able to blanket Carroll on the perimeter or Richardson in the post. Schmidt said McKell, who shared a player of the week award with Richardson earlier in the season, has taken on a bigger role after being pushed hard by her coach. She said she realized McKell, a 5-foot-8 junior, could handle being scrutinized and prodded to get better because she is a mentally tough player who strives to improve.
"I have been on her pretty hard," Schmidt said. "Coaches are guilty of that when we see a player has an ability to do something. You just hope you keep pushing and pushing until you push them past that and on into it. She is tough. U think a lot of her as a person, and I know she wants to accomplish goals and help this team."
Schmidt said McKell often has to guard a taller player on the other end of the floor. That hasn't been an obstacle, though, because Schmidt said McKell plays as big as any forward in the league. Combined with a stellar basketball IQ, Schmidt said McKell has learned to read the game and to find her openings on the floor to capitalize when teams pay too much attention to Richardson or Carroll.
"The greatest thing about her so far has been her versatility and the fact she has hung in there despite a few tough games and crazy things other teams do to us," Schmidt said. "No matter what happens the rest of the season, she has become exactly what she needs to become for this team to become better."
McKell said she has grown more comfortable in doing more for the team and having more be expected of her. She feels she has adjusted to having a different load on her shoulders and hasn't gotten caught up in trying to be the team's leading scorer or rebounder. Instead, she said she was driven to help the team in any way she could to get the championship medal.
"This year, being able to be on the court and to be able to contribute instead of just cheering them on is really exciting," McKell said.
McKell said she has improved her shooting, as evidenced by the fact she hit three 3-pointers in the championship victory against Hillcrest Christian, and her ballhandling. With teams trying to pressure Carroll and the Lady Volunteers' younger guards, McKell's ability to handle tougher defenses has taken the pressure off her teammates.
"I feel good and that I have really been able to contribute and help out," McKell said. "I really like playing along side everyone on the court, especially Nora and Sallie Kate. Me and Sallie Kate were just talking during practice and it is like a telepathy thing. I don't know, it just happens. It feels really good to be out there and to be a part of that. Being part of a team is really fun. I enjoy it."
Cunningham feels the same way about his role with the Rams. The junior point guard has worked well with Payton Cosby, Brendan Bailey, Jaelin Bankhead, and the rest of his teammates to help the Rams earn a top seed for the Class A tournament this week. But Immanuel Christian wouldn't have secured that spot if Cunningham didn't take charge in a 66-63 victory against Hebron Christian in the semifinals of the North Central tournament. Trailing by double digits at halftime and with several of his teammates struggling to score, Cunningham took it upon himself to provide a spark. He used his ability to create off the dribble to make things happen and to get his teammates involved.
"He hit a couple of threes and made a couple of steals and went down their and laid it up. That just gave us a huge spark," Immanuel Christian coach Greg Watkins said. "KC is an emotional player. He has some fire in him, and the team just rallied around him."
Cunningham, who also plays football at the school, scored 20 points against Hebron Christian. Watkins also coaches the football team, so he has seen Cunningham emerge as a leader on both squads. He said Cunningham is equally effective making things happen on the team's pressure defense. If the Rams need to run a half-court offense, Watkins said Cunningham can take opponents off the dribble against a man-to-man or run the offense against a zone defense to get the ball to the right person.
"You could see maybe a little bit of the pressure on him early in the year, but right now he is taking control," Watkins said.
True to the team's mantra "Many parts, one body," Cunningham has picked his spots. He said he feels equally comfortable in games when he can pass the ball and not score a lot as he does in games when he knows he has to do a little more to help push his team through a tough stretch. He realized the game against Hebron Christian was one of those times. It was even more satisfying to build on that win and beat Kemper Academy for the title.
"I am pretty proud of my team because we came together as one and we won it together," Cunningham said. "I was just playing trying to help my team. I was just trying to do whatever I had to do for the team."
Cunningham said he didn't know how his teammates would respond to his knack for turning defense into offense in the second half. He said his teammates fed off his energy and were able to raise their levels to bring the title home. Cosby (16 points), RJ Deloach (14), Bankhead (11), and Bailey (10) also scored in double figures to complement their junior leader.
Cunningham feels it was part of his responsibility to provide that spark to make sure the Rams lived up to their motto and found a way to win a championship.
"I feel pretty great about what we did in North Central and district, but I think we can pull off state, too," Cunningham said. "We just have to come together as one because it is 'Many parts, one body.' We always go by that motto, and we live that motto. You can tell we do when you watch us play because we all have many parts and we just do our part, and when other people do their part we come together as one."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.