Frustrating finish to
a fabulous season:
Irish oust Falcons

March 7, 2019

ST. ELIZABETH, Mo. --- St. Elizabeth only has three seniors on its roster, and none of them have had significant impacts on the game, statistically.

This is a junior-driven team that's driven the Hornets all the way to the Final Four.

And the Hornets will still be the old kids on the block(s) when they meet Dora on Friday, because the majority of the players on this roster don't even have their driver's license --- one junior, nine sophomores, three freshmen, no seniors.

Youth is served. No matter good you think you are, it seems there's always somebody younger and better than you.

Well, not always. We'll see about that.

"They start five sophomores and last year, they started four freshmen," Hornets second-year coach Dillon Tenholder. "It's incredible for them to be where they're at right now."

It's just like the mood in St. Elizabeth --- incredible --- as the Hornets prepare for their third Final Four overall and first since 2005.

"I see signs everywhere around town and postings on Facebook," said Tenholder, as the eighth-ranked Hornets (23-5) prepare to battle the No. 1 Falcons (29-1) in the semifinals at 2:40 p.m. Friday at the Hammons Center in Springfield. "We're having a send-off and a pep assembly (not to mention canceling school Friday) ... it's just been crazy.

"It's been a lot of fun and the boys are loving every second of it. Everyone is excited and can't wait until Friday."


THIS DIDN'T SEEM LIKELY TWO YEARS AGO, as the Hornets were wrapping up their fifth straight losing season --- a streak that included ugly seasons like 3-22 and 3-20.

Enter Tenholder, who's doesn't look much older than the players in this youth-filed semifinal.

A 2013 graduate of Adrian High School, Tenholder, 23, went on to graduate from the University of Central Missouri in 2017 with a degree in business management. His final three years in college, he was an assistant coach at Leeton where he helped the program to its first Final Four in school history.

He found his way to St. Elizabeth in 2017 and went 15-12 in his first season. Now, the Hornets are 23-5 and in the Final Four.

How has he done it?

"It seems cliche'," Tenholder said, "but it comes down to the kids --- they've put in a ton of work, even outside of what we asked of them. When they put in that much work, it allows great things to happen."

Having 6-8, 6-5, 6-4 talent doesn't hurt, either.

"For sure, especially at small schools," Tenholder said. "Some of them have height, some of them have talent, but very few schools our size have height with talent."

Size and hard-working talent has been a winning combination since James Naismith put up the first peach basket. If you need further proof ...

The Hornets have yet to lose to a Class 1 school this season. Or a Class 2, either, for that matter. Four losses were to Class 3 schools, including Southern Boone and Centralia, and the other was to Battle, a Class 5 district champion.

"Those games were huge for us," said Tenholder, whose team has won eight straight and 11 of 12. "Not a lot of Class 1 schools can say that they played anywhere close to the same type of competition that we've played.

"Ultimately, we want to win championships and playing the tougher opponents puts us in the best position to do so."


ROSS STRUEMPH, A 6-8 JUNIOR, IS THE NO. 1 DRIVING FORCE for the Hornets, as he leads the team in scoring (19 ppg.), rebounding (7.5) and blocked shots (two per game).

"He's a big man who can step outside and shoot the 3," Tenholder said. "He's got tremendous post moves, he's got length, and he can take you off the dribble, as well. He's a tremendous matchup problem."

And he's only gotten better as the games have gotten bigger ---  31 points in the sectional win over Concordia, 35 in the quarterfinals against Lakeland.

In the latter. Struemph scored --- get this --- 19 straight points for the Hornets, spanning from the end of the first half to the start of the second.

"He's so much fun to watch," Tenholder said, "once he gets going."

There is some concern about his health, however, as Struemph suffered a thumb injury on his shooting hand against Lakeland.

Not to worry, Tenholder said.

"It continues to get better," he said. "The swelling's going down, the bruising's going down ... he'll be good to go on Friday."

Then there's the Heckemeyers, the latest in a line of great St. Elizabeth Heckemeyers.

Nolan, a 6-5 junior, is second on the team in scoring (12 ppg.), third in rebounding (6), and leads the team in assists (5.5 per game).

"He gets overshadowed by Ross a little bit," Tenholder said, "but he's just as good as anyone, in my opinion. He's a calming factor for our team, offensively, and he's our leader on defense."

Brady, a 6-5 junior (the Hornets have size a lot of Class 5 schools would covet), is a solid third contributor, scoring at 10 a game with seven rebounds.

"Brady does a little bit of everything for us," Tenholder said. "He can pretty well play any position, 1 through 5."

Other key Hornets include 6-foot freshman Brock Lucas (9 ppg., 5 apg and a team-high 2.7 steals per game) and 5-10 junior Coltin Green (8 ppg.)


WHEN YOU LOOK AT DORA'S ROSTER, you wonder how they could possibly match up with St. Elizabeth, not to mention rolling up a record of 29-1 and advancing to the semifinals.

They have two 6-3 players, both sophomores, and one who stands at 6-4, a freshman. And none have made a big impact, statistically, for the Falcons.

The rest of the roster is full of underclassmen, ranging from 5-7 to 6-foot.

What makes them so good?

"I know that four of their sophomores have been playing together since that were really little," Tenholder said. "They just have a natural feel for each other, they know what the other person is about to do.

"And they're scrappy and play with intensity, they're relentless. They'll get after you for the full 32 minutes, from one end of the court to the other. A lot of teams can't handle that."

Dora's leading scorer is 6-0 sophomore Isaac Haney, who averages more than 24 ppg.

"He basically has the green light to shoot once he steps past half court," Tenholder said. "He can shoot it from 25, 28 feet out and shoot it at a very high percentage."

Obviously, the Falcons are 29-1 for a reason. They're good ... but so are the Hornets.

We'll just see if the old guys can pull it off.

Chris Leuckel

Loeffler's Link

St. Elizabeth's 6-8 junior Ross Struemph (32) puts up a short jumper during the Class 1 sectional game with Concordia on Feb. 26 in Sedalia.

Youth is served: Young Hornets
meet younger Falcons in semis