Years from now, when Kelly High School senior Kelly Essner looks back on her high school basketball career, she probably will not remember how many points she scored in her final game against Doniphan or how she did in the state quarterfinal game her sophomore season.
What likely will stay with her are the trips to basketball camps in Branson, Mo., the team bowling get-togethers and all the fun times with her teammates.
"I probably will likely remember the times in the locker room more than the games we had," she said.
Under coach Rod McQuerter, the Hawks were taught to care about their teammates and enjoy the game.
"It's not about wins and losses," McQuerter said. "The things our girls learned this year is the journey is very fun."
Essner, a four-year starter, embodied McQuerter's philosophy of hard work, positive attitude and playing as a team. With Essner leading the way, the Hawks racked up a 24-5 record and a district title. Essner's season made her this year's Southeast Missourian Player of the Year.
"When you get a girl with her kind of talent that plays that hard, it's very special," McQuerter said.
The 5-foot-8 guard helped lead a veteran Kelly squad to its sixth straight 20-win season.
"She had a bulldog mentality. She never gave up," McQuerter said. "She never complained once in four years of practice."
Essner did it all for the Hawks. On the perimeter, she was Kelly's main 3-point threat. She was also able to drive inside when necessary.
Essner credited her offensive success to her teammates, who picked her up on the other end.
"Offense is probably my main goal. I was kind of slow on defense," she said. "All of my teammates kind of picked up on defense."
Over her four seasons, Essner steadily improved her production. Essner averaged eight points as a freshman, 12 as a sophomore and 14 as a junior. During her senior campaign, Essner consistently led the Hawks in scoring, averaging a team-high 20 points per game. She also averaged 5.5 steals, six assists and five rebounds.
McQuerter said Essner's improvement since last year was tremendous, especially after a junior season in which she consistently was hampered with foul problems.
"She slowed down, and the game came to her," he said. "She wasn't forcing anything."
Essner carried the Hawks in the playoffs, pouring in 25 points in a rout of Greenville in the district championship game. In the sectional round, Essner had 26 points in a loss to Doniphan.
In four years as a regular, Essner was a part of 90 wins, including two district titles. On the softball field, where Essner shined as a pitcher and shortstop, the Hawks won three district titles and brought home a state title in the fall.
Essner said what helped make the basketball team so successful was the close relationship among the players.
"That made us better on the court," she said. "You realize you can count on them more."
McQuerter said she was certainly a one-of-a-kind player.
"They only come around once every 10 years," he said. "They'll be other girls that play at this school, but Kelly is special because of what's inside her."
Essner plans on competing in athletics at the college level, with softball and basketball options available to her.
"I'm going to play one or the other. I just don't know which," she said.