ASHLAND — The first thing one notices when watching Ashland High senior Kelsey McKinnis on the basketball floor is the ever-present smile.

ASHLAND — The first thing one notices when watching Ashland High senior Kelsey McKinnis on the basketball floor is the ever-present smile.

Whether chasing down an outlet pass, fighting over a screen or setting her feet to release a silky smooth 3-point shot, the love of the game is readily apparent. It was a discovery made at a younger age.

"I realized how much I love it and how much it means to me," says McKinnis, a co-captain and the Grizzlies' leading scorer this season. "This is something I love doing and can be really good at."

Though she's a three-year starter who will likely repeat as a first-team all-Southern Sky Conference performer, McKinnis has at times been overshadowed by the exploits of University of California-bound Brenna Heater and reigning SSC player of the year Allison Gida. Never has McKinnis' star shone brighter than this winter, however.

With Heater and Gida sidelined by injuries for a combined 18 games, the 5-foot-8 McKinnis has been the glue that has held the team together. Not only does she lead the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game, she's scored in double figures 20 times in 23 games, leading the team 11 times, including a career-high 31 points against Klamath Union last month.

And she normally draws the defensive assignment on the opposing team's point guard. When Gida was out of the lineup with a sprained ankle, McKinnis switched from her natural shooting guard spot to point.

"She does whatever we ask her to do," coach Tom McCracken says. "She's been extremely steady. When Allison's on the bench, we move her over to the point guard. That was difficult for her early in the year. Lately, she's done a great job."

Heater has had a first-hand look at McKinnis' development.

"She's matured a lot with her overall skills as a player," Heater says. "Her shot has gotten better over the years. We've been through a lot together. Each year, she's grown as a player and as a person, too."

McKinnis, who has played for three different head coaches in her four years on varsity, might be classified as a pure shooter, connecting on a league-high 59 3-pointers and shooting around 50 percent.

"I'd be surprised if there's anyone else (in the state) who has taken as many 3s as she's taken and shot as high of a percentage as she's shot," McCracken says.

That picture-perfect stroke was honed by countless hours of shooting alone in gymnasiums for more than a decade.

"Shooting has always been something that I worked on," she says. "It's always something that has come naturally to me, but at the same time, I've put tons of hours into this game just to get better."

"I'm lucky that my dad's an elementary school PE teacher, so I pretty much had access to a gym whenever I wanted. I remember one summer keeping track of how many baskets I made the entire summer. My favorite number is 11 (her uniform number), so my goal was 11,000. I think I got halfway. Other coaches have referred to me as a gym rat. But it takes practice to get where I want to be."

McKinnis, Gida and Heater all played AAU basketball together as youngsters. To be able to compete together at such a high level is something of a dream realized.

"We've spent so many hours together," McKinnis recalls. "As sixth-graders, Brenna and I told ourselves we were going to be the first two freshmen to make varsity, and we did."

That 2005-06 team finished fifth at the Class 4A tournament prior to state reclassification.

Playing in the 5A ranks, the Grizzlies were upset by West Albany on their home court in the playoffs the following season, then in 2007-08, won 25 straight games before losing to Willamette in the quarterfinals en route to a sixth-place finish.

"My sophomore year was a huge growth year for us as a team," McKinnis says. "That was the year we learned what it means to have to put in the work. We didn't work as hard. We expected things to come to us naturally."

The playoff loss to West Albany still lingers in her memory.

"That was one moment I'll never forget," says McKinnis. "We should have put more out there. We had so much more to give. I know that was a huge factor coming into last season."

As a junior, she averaged 11.5 ppg and earned all-league honors on a 26-4 squad.

"Last season, for me, was when I realized how much I loved the game and how much I want to play at the next level," she says. "I felt like I really grew as a player. Lots of people have always seen me as just a shooter or one dimensional."

A National Honor Society student with a 3.98 grade-point average, McKinnis remains undecided about where she'll attend college but plans to major in exercise science.

"I'm hoping to play at a good (NCAA Division II) school," she says.

But that can wait. For now, McKinnis is focused on helping the Grizzlies shoot for the school's first state title. Ashland (18-6, 12-0 SSC) has won 16 of its last 17 games and completed a second consecutive unbeaten SSC season Thursday with a 71-31 win over Mazama.

The Grizzlies will open the 5A playoffs with a second-round game on Feb. 28 at Southern Oregon University's McNeal Pavilion. A win would send them back to the Chiles Center in Portland for quarterfinal action on March 5.

"Last year at state, we all agreed that we could have done more," McKinnis says. "I think we all realize it; this is our last shot. This matters a lot to all of us, and it's going to take a lot of work."

For her senior project, McKinnis and Heater teamed up to hold a basketball camp for girls in grades 4-8 last summer.

"We got to teach little girls how to play basketball," says McKinnis. "Everyone always dreads their senior project, but Brenna and I had such a good time with it."

When she's not occupied on the hardwood or pitch (she earned second-team all-SSC honors in soccer last fall), McKinnis is actively involved with student activities and volunteer work with a local physical therapist. Last year, she was co-chair of Ashland's Social Committee, which is in charge of organizing homecoming and prom activities.

"I kind of wear myself thin sometimes," she admits. "But you have to enjoy everything you can right now while you can. I wouldn't want to give anything up."