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Hirsch supplies calm before the storm for Crater

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Steady senior McKenzie Hirsch serves as a catalyst for No. 7-ranked Crater

CENTRAL POINT — At this point, there are very few things on the basketball court that will surprise Crater senior McKenzie Hirsch.

And, in turn, there are very few things that Hirsch does that will surprise her Comet teammates and coaches.

“It’s a constant,” Crater head coach Scott Dippel said of Hirsch, a four-year varsity player for the Comets. “I know what I’m getting from her. I know what she brings. The kids do, too.

“Just that calm … she’s a calm kid. She gets excited, she gets nervous, but kids will look at her and she doesn’t show any of that. She’s a good, calm influence.”

When it comes to Hirsch, she’s proven to be a level-headed contributor and the model of consistency that every team strives to have on its roster, and the kind of player that will check all of the boxes when it comes to helping her team win.

A matchup problem on both ends of the floor, Hirsch leads the Comets in points (11.7) and rebounds (5.5) this season while also recording just over three steals a game — figures watered-down by limited minutes in blowout victories.

Crater has actually done a lot of winning in Hirsch’s time, with the versatile 5-foot-11 guard playing a bigger and bigger role as the years have gone by.

The Comets, ranked No. 7 in the Class 5A coaches poll, are a half-game ahead of No. 6 Springfield for second place in the Midwestern League entering Friday’s top-10 matchup with the Millers. Tipoff is 6:45 p.m.

Hirsch has seen plenty of these scenarios take place ever since her first varsity game in 2018. But even as calm under pressure as she is, the competitor inside just can’t help but try to thrive in the biggest of games for Crater (16-4, 9-2 MWL).

“It’s been fun, and I like that our conference is challenging,” said Hirsch with a grin. “The Midwestern League has always been, in my opinion, one of the best leagues in 5A. This year is no different — Springfield, Churchill, Willamette and us, it’s all neck and neck.”

When it comes to how Hirsch has helped Crater stay at that top-tier level, Dippel boils it down to more than just the talent she’s been blessed with. It is as much about the knowledge of the game as it is a relentless work ethic.

“As a player, she works hard in practice,” began Dippel, “but what a lot of people don’t see is the amount of time she puts in outside of school, in the gyms. She’s putting in time, getting 400 shots up, she has made herself by the time she has put in. Her knowledge of the game has naturally moved. As a kid gets older, they naturally learn more and more about the game, and I think that definitely has happened with her.

“You’re looking at now a player that understands and recognizes what other teams do and she’s an advantage to have on the floor.”

During a freshman season where Hirsch’s role evolved as the year went on, the Comets advanced to the Class 5A semifinals before losing to Springfield in Corvallis.

Crater was again a state semifinalist in 2020, but the Comets saw COVID-19 wipe out their semifinal matchup with Silverton before it even started.

Hirsch stepped into more of a leading role as a junior during last spring’s abbreviated season, earning an all-Southern Oregon Conference selection as Crater went 12-3. She averaged 11.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals in the spring, with Crater’s only league losses coming against South Medford.

The switch into a leading role was one that Hirsch felt like she was ready for. She was no longer the freshman who had struggled with confidence and had to work her way through inexperience. Instead, she became the opponents’ focal point and one of the first names you think of when trying to slow the Comets down.

“Junior year, she was who people game planned for,” said Dippel. “It was that switch to being that complementary player to the one coaches scouted, who they game planned for. That can sometimes be eye-opening for kids, but she handled it really well.”

“I think that made her smarter as an offensive player because she starts to see all of those different things,” continued Dippel. “If I look at her full maturation, it’s been that combination of really paying attention on the floor and putting so much of that time in off the floor.”

That maturation has led Hirsch, one of only two seniors on the roster with Kayleigh Gugliotta, to become more of a leader this season than ever before.

“When I was a freshman, we had four seniors and we’ve always had a lot more upperclassmen,” said Hirsch. “This year it’s obviously different just for a lot of different circumstances, so I’m in a different role than I ever have been. I’m in more of a leadership role now — especially since we only have four upperclassmen on the varsity team, so it’s a good role, but it’s definitely very different from what I’m used to. It’s been a really nice challenge and it’s been fun.”

For Hirsch, the sheer volume of youth on the Comets’ roster this season has certainly made her lead-by-example mindset all the more important.

And, in a way, the more fulfilling as well.

“It’s been a really great feeling,” said Hirsch of how this season has gone. “I feel like everybody was unsure of where we would be at because of how young we are this season, but we all knew we were going to be great. I think we’re proving that we are great and they will be great in the next years to come. I think we’re proving to ourselves right now just how to play as a team and get that unity going. I feel like we’re doing great with it.”

Despite their youth, the Comets are on track to win at least 20 games for the third time in Hirsch’s four seasons.

As much as the individual success has been nice, Hirsch’s top priority has been doing whatever she can to ensure Crater wins.

If that means carrying the team offensively, so be it. If that means being unselfish and being more provider than scorer, then that’s perfectly OK, too.

“There’s no individuals, so we really need to play together,” said Hirsch, who has seen Crater go 73-16 during her time as a varsity player. “If someone’s shooting great that night, they should be the one to be the high scorer. That’s the mentality that we have had this season and need to still have is that we need to be very unselfish and play as a unit rather than as individuals.”

It continues to be a recipe for success that has helped Crater overcome its collective inexperience entering the season.

And it’s one that Hirsch and the Comets hope to continue as they jockey for playoff position as the postseason quickly approaches.

“I think we only have three home games left, so we really have to take advantage — especially me as a senior,” said Hirsch. “I’m really excited to play Springfield — it was a super close game the first time and those are always the funnest games for me. They’re a talented team, but we just need to be disciplined and do the things that we do well.”

Many of those things that Crater does well involve Hirsch in one way or another.

It’s been that way for three years now.

And the chance to end her prep career on the same state tournament stage in which it started in 2019, that’s something that Hirsch can’t help but think about, too.

“It would mean the world,” said Hirsch. “Last year it got taken from us, so it would mean everything to go all the years it was possible to go. Just to have those extra games to play with my team and leave it all on the court.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

McKenzie Hirsch, Crater High School senior girls basketball player. Photo by Denise Baratta
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater's McKenzie Hirsch steals the ball away from Thurston's Bailey Trovey during the 3rd quarter.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater's McKenzie Hirsch shoots for two points during the 2nd quarter against Thurston.