Prep girls basketball: Dynamic duo of Kirk, Kneepkens highlights Hilltoppers
In Northeastern Minnesota, it's not uncommon for a high school hockey team to have multiple NCAA Division I recruits.
Basketball? Not so much.
In that regard, the Duluth Marshall girls are bucking conventional wisdom. Not only do the Hilltoppers have a pair of potential D-I players in junior Grace Kirk and sophomore Gianna Kneepkens, but both are guards.
Which is why first-year Marshall coach Chibuzo "C.J." Osuchukwu says, without reservation: "They're hands down the best backcourt — they're the two best players in northern Minnesota."
The coach acknowledges his partisanship, but he might be onto something.
Kneepkens is averaging a Northland-best 32.1 points, with Kirk third — behind Cromwell-Wright's Taya Hakamaki — at 27.2.
But this duo does more than score. Kneepkens contributes 8.4 rebounds, 4.5 steals and 3.4 assists a night. Kirk, meanwhile, adds 8.4 rebounds, 8 assists and 4.4 steals while knocking down a jarring 53.8 percent (50-for-93) of her 3-point attempts. Kneepkens is a 44.6 percent (58-for-130) shooter from beyond the arc.
Both are near 80 percent from the free-throw line.
At a school not known for girls basketball supremacy — the program's lone state-tournament appearance came in 2000 and, in December 2016, the Hilltoppers snapped an 88-game Lake Superior Conference losing streak — Kirk and Kneepkens have Marshall humming along at 18-5.
Almost since Kirk arrived at Marshall from Duluth Denfeld, there's been a (mis)perception that the two haven't always seen eye to eye, and not merely because Kneepkens is 5-foot-10 and Kirk 5-6.
"People like to think there's a competition between me and Gianna," Kirk said while shaking her head. "But it's never been that way. It's always been, what can we do to help each other?"
Added Osuchukwu: "They're like best friends. They're like peanut butter and jelly. They jell together ... but they're also competitive."
Kirk's D-I suitors thus far include Wisconsin-Green Bay, Hampton and St. Bonaventure, while Kneepkens has an offer from North Dakota State, plus myriad additional interest.
Good as these two are, getting through Section 7AA and to the state tournament is hardly a foregone conclusion. The Hilltoppers' lack of depth was exposed in a double-overtime loss to International Falls on Feb. 9 and a setback to Proctor three days later. It's not that the Hilltoppers don't have other talented players — it's that they don't have enough of them.
Sophomore Merlea Mrozik (7.2 points per game) and freshman Dasia Starks (6.4 ppg, 7.7 rebounds per game) are terrific complements, but injuries and the defections of three seniors before the season started robbed the Hilltoppers of a full roster. Marshall has been reduced to seven healthy players at times this winter.
Still, they aren't wavering from their goal of reaching state.
"We can be really good because we all have different roles and everyone fits in with each other," said Kneepkens, who credits competing against five older brothers for the player she's become.
Osuchukwu called Kirk the "engine to our team." She's relentlessly competitive and has morphed from a pure slasher into a do-it-all veteran, as evidenced by her 3-point shooting percentage, which is tops in the Northland.
Kirk, though, doesn't have to look far to find her equal. She and Kneepkens admittedly go at each other hard in practice, but in a productive way, one that brings out the best in not only themselves, but their teammates, as well.
"I tell the girls all the time to take advantage of practicing with two Division I basketball players," Osuchukwu said. "They see the hard work they're putting in, and they want to get better."
Kirk and Kneepkens have gotten to know each other so well through copious hours spent together on the court — and off — that "I know Gianna's tendencies before she even does them, and she knows mine, too," Kirk said.
"I can't imagine not playing on the same team as her," Kirk continued. "I'd feel really scared to go up against her, so I'm glad she's in a Marshall jersey."