by Michael Smith
Injuries derailed what could have been a special season for the Grain Valley girls basketball team in 2021-22.
The team lost starting guard Finley LaForge to injury early in the season and during the 19th game of the regular season against Blue Springs, University of Missouri commit Grace Slaughter tore her ACL in her left knee.
That made things tough for the Eagles after losing two of their starters to injury as they fell to Columbia Battle in the first round of the playoffs.
Now, Slaughter and LaForge are healthy and practicing in full as Grain Valley lost just one senior from last season’s team and returns seven rotational players for the 2022-23 campaign.
“I think we are lucky that we are returning seven of our nine players from last year,” Slaughter said. “We have played together for a solid two years. It just builds chemistry.”
Added junior McKenah Sears: “Everything is clicking in practice. We are all on the same page.”
While the Eagles will have the majority of its players that were a part of a 16-2 team prior to Slaughter’s injury, they will have to face a tough schedule, which is by design, veteran head coach Randy Draper said.
Among the tough teams his team will have to play include Nixa, Blue Springs, Blue Springs South, Columbia Rock Bridge and Lee’s Summit North.
“Our schedule is very difficult for a reason,” Draper said. “We have high aspirations, so we have to play some really tough games if we want to become what we want to become.”
Playing those teams should help prepare the Eagles for the playoffs, Draper said. They should be well equipped to handle it, especially with Slaughter, a four-star recruit and the 53rd best girls basketball player in the 2023 class according to ESPN.com, returning from injury.
Slaughter expects to see a lot of double teams as she’s seen plenty of them in the last three seasons. The senior is a versatile forward who can score in the post, is a good passer, can beat defenders off the dribble, has the ability to sink 3-pointers, and is a good defender who is adept at deflecting passes at 6-foot-1.
She currently holds the school record with 1,795 career points, averaged 31.3 points last season and is a three-time all state selection.
“I feel pretty good,” Slaughter said. “I am still restricting a little bit on how much I play. I don’t want to be sore. Everything has been going well so far.”
Added Draper: “If you didn’t know about her injury, you wouldn’t be able to tell that she had ACL surgery. She is moving great, but that is just a testament to how hard she works in recovery and the physical therapist she works with.”
Slaughter will be joined by LaForge, who served as the team’s point guard last season. She is a solid pass, who has a solid jump shot and she can also take players off the dribble and get to the basket.
Sears, a good 3-point shooter and defender, also returns to the rotation along with Annabelle Totta, a good all-around athlete who is quick and can use her speed to get by defenders on the dribble drive.
Also returning are Camryn Bown, a tenacious defender and capable outside shooter; senior Ella Clyman, a good rebounder and post scorer; Meghan Knust, a good rebounder and solid defender; and Emma Jane Ogle, a good defender, rebounder and mid-range shooter.
“I always say Cameryn is someone who dots the Is and crosses the Ts for the defense,” Draper said. “She is always in the right place and always blocks out.
“Grace isn’t a secret. Everyone is going to guard her. Her teammates have to be able to take that pressure back off her. If they do that, we are in. The outside shooting is there. We just have to shoot good shots in rhythm.”
With so many players returning, team chemistry should be on point for this year’s Eagles. This is the season Grain Valley wants to do something special – make it to the Class 6 state final four.
“Especially with Draper being a Hall of Fame coach and never going to state for basketball, that is a goal for all of us,” Slaughter said. “Not only to have team camaraderie and play for our community, but get him to state. He’s an amazing coach.”
Grain Valley senior Grace Slaughter prepares to shoot a layup between two defenders at practice on Tuesday. Photo credit: Michael Smith
Grain Valley senior Ella Clyman looks to pass to a teammate. Photo credit: Michael Smith