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PAXTON – She was the Homecoming Queen and an All-Conference outside hitter for a record-setting girls volleyball team this fall, which would make for a stellar school year for most kids.
But Kandace Hofer’s final high school year has included a winter filled with good results in girls basketball, and it got even better with some heroics last Thursday.
Hofer converted an Amanda Ypya pass off an inbounds play with 13 seconds left for the game-winning points as Paxton-Buckley-Loda edged St. Joseph-Ogden 48-46 on Senior Night in Paxton.
Ypya tallied 16 points in shaking off a knee injury, Hofer had 12 and Andi Lemley added 10 as the Panthers won for the ninth consecutive time when three or more players scored in double figures.
Head coach Clarissa Gross’ team made 22-of-40 field goals (55 percent) in overcoming a late-game rally by the visiting Spartans to earn its 19th win in 26 games before heading into Class 2A regional play with a game Tuesday at Unity High (results past deadline).
A win Tuesday would give PBL 20 victories and set up a possible matchup with St. Thomas More at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the regional title game. The Sabers have already beaten PBL and are ranked first in the state’s Class 2A poll, but the Panthers’ effort versus SJ-O had to be a confidence booster heading into the state playoffs.
PBL played some of its most efficient basketball this season in forging a 36-25 lead with 3:18 in the third period as Ypya hit a pull-up jumper from 10 feet out. At that juncture, the home team had made 16 of its initial 26 field goal tries, good for 62 percent, and had held SJ-O to 29 percent shooting (8-of-28) with a tight 1-2-2 zone defense.
But the Spartans used three 3-point field goals by freshman reserve Katie Landis to tie the game at 46-all with 28 ticks left. Hofer missed a jump shot on PBL’s next trip down the floor, but freshman Kellyn Maynard (eight points, eight rebounds) fought for the rebound and (on a jump ball call) the Panthers retained possession under the SJ-O basket with 16 seconds remaining. Hofer cut under the basket and after taking Ypya’s inbound pass, she put in a short shot to score the game’s final points.
SJ-O brought the ball down the floor for a game-tying shot, but turned it over as Erin Lemley grabbed the loose ball. After a PBL timeout, a long inbound pass from Kirstin Schnabel went to Hofer down the court and she made the catch and dribbled out the clock to send a partisan home crowd home happy.
It was the second time Hofer’s end-of-game scoring had won a Sangamon Valley Conference contest for PBL. She had made two foul shots with three seconds left to secure a 39-37 win over Cissna Park in December. She had also produced 18 points against Clifton Central and 17 points against Shiloh in a performance that included a 13-point second quarter. But Thursday’s win will go down as the highlight of the season, Hofer admitted.
“It’ll definitely be a great memory,” said Hofer of the game-winning basket. “It’s been one of our set plays that we don’t often run because we don’t usually get guarded man-to-man (on out-of-bounds sets), but me and ‘Yippy’ have been playing a long time and have a good feel for each other and it was a great pass that worked out.”
“For a girl who was contemplating not playing her senior year, she has stepped up a lot when her team has needed her and this was one of those nights,” said Gross of the three-year varsity letter winner who has totaled 549 career points, 290 rebounds, 182 assists and 153 steals heading into regional play. “Ypya had injured her knee in practice Wednesday and Kandace and I had discussed a lot about what would happen if she couldn’t play and I told her, ‘You’ve got to shoot the ball.’ And she had the (offensive) drive and focus like she had against Shiloh.”
Ypya, Hofer, Erin Lemley, Andi Lemley and Sara Kennedy — PBL’s five senior basketball players — were in the starting lineup together on Thursday and the quintet got their team off to an 8-4 lead in their final minutes on the home court together.
Heading into regionals, they had scored 71 percent (909) of their team’s 1,289 points and grabbed 68 percent (771) of the 1,142 rebounds this season. They also produced 200 steals and dished out 179 assists and a lot of great memories for their first-year coach.
“I don’t think we could’ve planned Senior Night to go any better,” said Gross. “Coming into a new school, you don’t know how the girls are going to take you in, but I don’t think I could’ve been welcomed in with more open arms than I was with these five seniors. They set the tone for the rest of the team. Erin and Yip have been the leaders most of the season, but there have been times when the other three have really stepped up and provided highlights. It’s been a special, special year.
“When you think that the season is three months and then some, it seems like you blink your eyes and it’s Senior Night,” she continued. “I’m really not ready for this season to end and whenever that last game for us comes, it’s going to be a tough one, it really is. I’ve coached in a lot of programs and this is the most special group of girls that I’ve had.”
Although Thursday was clearly Hofer’s big night, PBL’s other seniors certainly have made their impact. Ypya’s 944 career points are the most among this year’s five seniors.
After Thursday, she also had 433 rebounds, 266 assists and 217 steals. Along with averaging nearly 13 points per game for team honors, Ypya is the team’s assist leader and top 3-point shooter while making vast improvement in her free throw percentage.
“Yip is a special, special kid,” Gross said of her point guard. “She has shown me more respect since I’ve been here than any girl I’ve coached and I feel like she’s exceeded any expectation I’ve had for her this year. She took to the role of point guard early in the season and she kind of drove our ship — she’s been a vital part to our season.”
Andi Lemley’s double-digit night upped her career point total 440 and she led her team with nine boards Thursday. Her rebound totals have gone up as of late and her last five contests included three games with 10 points or more.
“She’s a girl that’s been okay with being behind the others and not having to be in the limelight,” said Gross about Andi. “She’s someone that has grown a lot this season and in the late part of the year, she became more vocal and I think it was one of the reasons we got out of our (three-game losing streak) rut.”
Although foul trouble kept Erin Lemley off the floor for long stretches on Thursday, her four rebounds and dive for a loose ball in the game’s final seconds typified the kind of effort Gross has appreciated all season. She now has 437 career points and plenty of floor burns over nearly three varsity seasons.
“All pre-season long, Erin was a girl I could rely on and took care of anything I needed,” Gross said. “We joke that she’s kind of the mom of the team. But she battled an illness and rib injury and you would’ve never known it; she’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, boys or girls.”
Kennedy’s career stat line (49 points, 91 rebounds) over two varsity seasons isn’t as impressive as her classmates, but last Monday’s seven-point, eight-rebound effort in a win at GCMS showed her value to the Panthers. A student council member with a singing voice that benefits the school choir, she has found many ways to contribute both on and off the court at PBL.
“When we’ve needed a vocal leader, someone to give us a little life, she’s been able to give that to us,” said Gross about Kennedy. Sara’s a gritty player, a girl who has accepted her role because that’s what is going to make the team better.”
A sixth senior was also honored last Thursday. Team manager Claire Weineke was recognized for three years working with the girls basketball program.