By CONOR NICHOLL
ELLIS - Ellis High School girls' basketball coach Perry Mick has a unique drill.
"We try to take 15-30 minutes each practice of just simply free shooting, and it seems like it is such a laid back part of practice and a lot of coaches wouldn't agree with it, but you have to have people that make shots," Mick said.
The players who normally attempt 3-pointers during games always are responsible for making a certain number of treys during the drill.
"I think it has shown," Mick said. "We tried to do it last year, too, but I think it has taken this long for those girls to get confident in that outside shot."
Last season, Ellis won nine games and didn't make a trey until the 10th contest. This winter, the Railers are 6-1 and ranked No. 9 in Class 2A in the coaches' rankings. One of the most significant reasons is the improvement from 3-point range.
Ellis is 27 of 76 (35.5) from beyond the arc this season, including 7 of 15 in a 67-46 home win against Ness City on Tuesday. Ness City is 5-2 and ranked No. 7 in Class 2A. Mick said the Railers already have made more treys than they did all last year.
The added offense has helped freshman Alexcia Deutscher, who leads Ellis with 17.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and nearly five steals a contest.
"I just want to keep seeing us improve," Mick said. "This team is still definitely young. There is a freshman that is on the court all the time. There are two sophomores that play a lot. There are only two seniors that play, so it is still young, but they are doing a good job."
Sophomore Stephanie Greenway tallied 15 points, all in the second half, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. Greenway has averaged 6.9 points per contest and is 8 of 14 from 3-point range this season. Last year, she averaged 3.6 points per game.
"She has made one or two or three 3s virtually every game, and that is something that we didn't have at all last year from her," Mick said. "I am not sure that she made one or two 3s on the year last year."
As well, sophomore Sarah Mick is 5 of 7 from beyond the arc and junior Brittany Dinkel is 6 of 15 from long range.
Mick has averaged 3.9 points a contest after she averaged 2.5 points per game as a freshman.
Senior Megan Honas is 7 of 34 from beyond the arc and has 4.6 points per game; she averaged 3.6 points per game last winter.
"That helps a lot," Coach Mick said.
Senior Bailey Hensley, a four-year starter, hit her first trey of the season Tuesday and has averaged 11 points per contest. Hensley, known for her speed and fast-breaking ability, collected 14.6 points per game as a junior.
"She is kind of the spark for us," Mick said. "She is our leader. Her effort carries over to the other girls."
Natoma's roster shuffling
Coach Aaron Homburg went through multiple injuries with the Natoma girls' basketball program last winter. By the end of the year, Homburg said he had "two or three girls" he expected to be in the top five or six unable to play. Natoma, despite having one of the state's leading scorers and rebounders in Danica Casey, finished 7-14 -- a five-win decrease from the previous winter.
"This year, we are a little healthier," Homburg said.
Natoma (3-3), does have two girls that are out for the year, but several others have returned. Natoma lost to Palco by two and lost to Plainville and Thunder Ridge each by 11.
"If we could have executed a little bit better, pretty easily we could be with one loss," Homburg said.
Plus, the Tigers have freshman Regan Casey, Danica's younger sister and a standout player.
Danica Casey has averaged 17.3 points and 11 rebounds, while Regan Casey is second on the team with 12.8 points and leads the team with 3.7 steals.
"She can create her own shot, she can get by people, she shoots a true jump shot," Homburg said.
Regan Casey, a talented player in the younger ranks, played on the Waconda Lakers this summer, a strong team made up many of northwest Kansas' top players.
"I think playing on the Lakers this summer helped her immensely," Homburg said. "... She is fast. Sometimes we talk to her about throttling back a little bit, but there is no slow gear."
Freshman Gracyn Miller (2.7 points, 42 percent shooting) has logged plenty of minutes.
Junior guard Marcy Barth has returned from a serious back injury and has averaged five points, 6.2 rebounds and a team-high 3.7 assists. Barta's return helps move Danica Casey and junior Tatum Pfortmiller (11.3 points/contest) to their correct positions.
Sophomore Kourtney Grafel averaged 6.2 points and 10.2 rebounds as a freshman. This year, Grafel has been banged up and averaged just 3.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.
"I've got the Grafel girl back off of her injuries, and now she is fighting some shin splits something fierce," Homburg said. "So much so that I've got to pull her out of games just because it gets to the point that she can't run. We kind of need Christmas break to hopefully heal up a little bit."
Ness City improving
Last year, Ness City had five seniors, but finished 5-16. This winter, the Eagles have started 5-2 and risen into the top-10 in the Class 2A rankings under first-year coach Curtis Foos. Ness City has just two seniors in Erin Flax and Joni Johnson.
Ness City's offensive output has changed little from last season, but the defense has improved.
In 2011-12, opponents outscored Ness City by an average margin of 47-38. This winter, Ness City outscored opponents collectively 42-39.
"They lost a lot of seniors last year," Foos said. "Not one girl is going to win any games for us. ... We win as a team and we lose a team. When we make mistakes on defense and make bad passes, we are doing it as a team, so we have to go ahead and just take care of the ball and good things will come for us."
Junior Jessie Rubottom sprained her ankle against Ellis, but is expected to be OK for after Christmas. She finished with seven points in the loss. Ness City had just one player in double figures, sophomore Tristan McVicker (14 points).
Against Ellis, Ness City had 46 points, the fourth straight game it's scored either 46 points or 44 points. But Tuesday was different. Ness City finished with 28 points in the first half.
"We have always got off to slow starts," Foos said. "We have scored five or six points in the first quarter and maybe it's the same in the second quarter, and then we come on in the third quarter and score more in the third quarter than we do in the first half. I think that has a lot to do with just being a young team and just nerves."