Wednesday, April 19, 2017
At a summer tournament about two hours away from home, Ethan Evans watched his star player hold her own -- even stand out -- when facing Class 4 and 5 schools, and realized this season would be different.
Leah Cauble was ready to take a step forward, Evans thought. The Oran girls basketball player had averaged more than 25 points per game a year earlier as a freshman, and she looked even more impressive in this mid-July tournament in Arnold, Missouri.
Still, Evans wasn't fully prepared for Cauble's sophomore campaign. He expected an improved player, but 33 points per game, 55-percent shooting from the field, including 40 percent on 3-pointers? Evans didn't envision all that.
That's what happened as Cauble led Oran to a 27-5 record and its first final four appearance in girls basketball. It was a feat she didn't expect going into the season and had trouble believing even after the ticket was punched. After scoring 1,056 points, which is the fourth-highest single-season mark in Missouri state history, Cauble was rewarded with the district player of the year award and a Class 2 all-state selection.
That individual success -- she also averaged five rebounds, four assists and 3.5 steals per games -- combined with the Eagles' historic run resulted in Cauble being named the 2017 Southeast Missourian Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
"I didn't know she was going to have the type of season that she did," Evans said. "But I expected a little bit more out of her."
During that mid-July tournament, Oran faced bigger schools like Class 5 Ritenour. Despite playing in Class 1 the year before, the Eagles weren't intimidated. Led by Cauble, they beat or held their own against the competition, Evans said.
That success foreshadowed the postseason run months later when Oran, which had never won a sectional game, reached state and along the way handed Neelyville its fifth loss of the season in the quarterfinals.
Going into that game, Oran kept hearing they were huge underdogs, Dustin Cauble said. But Leah scored 33 points and Oran secured a berth in the final four with a 72-69 win.
"We play a Class 2 schedule and a lot of our teams in our conference are a little down, and nobody gave us credit," said Dustin, Leah's father and Oran assistant coach. "That's all we heard about, more than anything. They're 20 points better than us, and those girls just fought and fought and they earned every bit of it. That was a token win for our season."
The game showcased one of the main reasons behind Leah's, and Oran's, improvement: her confidence. A year older and more mature, she felt more comfortable on the court. Plus, after Evans and her dad pestered her all summer about demanding the ball more at the end of games, Leah responded this season. Against Neelyville, she hit 13 of 15 free throws, including 10 of 12 in the final four minutes to help the Eagles hold on for the victory.
"She just wanted the ball and knocked down free throws down the stretch," Evans said. "That quarterfinal game she had a ton of free throws down the stretch."
Leah's improvement wasn't solely due to confidence. It was multi-faceted, as she grew, literally, into a better player.
From freshman to sophomore year, Leah grew a couple inches to 5-foot-9. That extra height allowed Cauble to get her shot off more easily and led to more points in the paint. She also got stronger, which helped her finish through contact on drives to the hoop, Evans said. This year, her signature shot was a bank shot from about five feet away off the dribble that often led to three-point plays.
Over the summer, Cauble and her father worked out in the Oran gym about four days a week in addition to weekly Oran open gyms and AAU commitments. That extra individual practice resulted in Leah learning to get her shot off quicker. After shooting at least a 1,000 shots a week -- probably closer to 2,000, Dustin admitted, since they only count shots on the shooting machine -- Leah started knocking down 3-point shots with more regularity this season. Pull-up jumpers were another weapon added to the arsenal thanks to those summertime workouts.
Despite a stellar freshman season that ended with a sectional loss to Class 1 runner-up Naylor, Cauble still had an itch to get better in the off-season. Dustin said he can't run her out of the gym, and she's always coming to him with suggestions or questions about what to work on.
"In that aspect, she's a father's dream," said Dustin, who at one point held the Scott City school record for scoring average with 24.3 points per game. "That's all she wants to do is get better, get better and better. She's not happy when she's not doing things well. She wants to correct it and become a better ballplayer."
Leah did a lot of agility and quickness drills this summer, as well. She believes her ball-handling got better too, even though Evans thought as a freshman she was a stellar ball-handler.
"I love the sport," Leah said. "I always want to get better, and my dad really helps me with that."
After a strong start to the season, which included a 45-point performance in the season opener, 39 in the home opener and a program-record 48 in the semifinals of the Lady Red Devils Invitational Tournament at Chaffee, Leah gradually realized the summer work had paid off.
As the season progressed and Leah continued putting up gaudy numbers, teams turned to a box-and-one defense. Leah was shadowed by one defender and the four other opposing players formed a zone defense. That was what Oran faced 90 percent of the time, Dustin said. Against Puxico in the sectional, Oran even faced a triangle-and-two with two players guarding Leah and the three others playing a zone. With a numbers advantage, Jessie Long took advantage inside, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds as the Eagles won by 19. Leah had one of her lowest scoring days of the season, finishing with 17 points.
"Scoring's great," Dustin said. "She does it often. But Leah doesn't care if she scores five points and has 15 assists and plays good defense for us to win."
Past and future
Leah had seen the scoreboard hit zero with her team ahead by three points. She had screamed in joy and celebrated with her teammates, who she had been playing with since sixth grade. She had even retreated to the locker room, where the celebration continued. But she still couldn't believe Oran was going to state.
The Eagles had just edged Neelyville, a Class 2 state finalist the year before, and had become the first girls sports team in school history to advance to state, according to Dustin.
That night, Leah was so excited she couldn't sleep.
"It was a great feeling," Leah said. "That's was the most fun game ever. We're all just family."
That was the goal all season, but Leah admitted she didn't envision it happening. Then, when it did she had a hard time wrapping her heard around the feat.
Her father and Evans weren't completely taken aback. Months earlier, the duo had gotten an indication this group could do special things when Oran defeated perennial powerhouse Saxony Lutheran in the final of the Delta New Years Invitational. A couple weeks later, the Crusaders got revenge, but both coaches called that tournament title a milestone win. Saxony ended up advancing to the Class 3 quarterfinals.
"That was what I thought was the big mark in the season that I thought we would be able to go farther and compete with the elite teams and maybe get to the final four," Evans said.
The state experience was less enjoyable as the Eagles lost both games, their first back-to-back defeats of the season. Going forward, Leah said the team can lean on that postseason run for confidence.
Leah returns along with Long, a fellow sophomore and All-Missourian selection, and freshman Kaylee Payne, who averaged 11 points per game. Oran loses one player, starter Brianna Stause. Only one other player this season was an upperclassman. So Oran appears to have a bright future.
But the Eagles won't sneak up on anyone next year. They won't be huge underdogs against Neelyville. The type of improvement that Evans noticed this past summer when Leah faced Class 4 and 5 schools in Arnold will be necessary.
Leah has been here before, though. In the eighth grade, as she was dominating and teams constantly played triangle-and-two against her, Dustin had a message for his daughter.
"We never want to get stale," Dustin said. "We don't want to peak now."
Two years later, that advice applies to Leah, and Oran, today just as much as it did then.
- 2016-17 All-Missourian Girls Basketball (04/19/17)