By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
Bishop LeBlond girls' basketball turned a major corner in 2021.
The Golden Eagles defeated East Atchison for the program's first district title since 2007. That season ended with a tough, 20-point loss at Grace Gymnasium to Wellington-Napoleon in state quarterfinals.
A year later, another district title, and the first 20-win season since 2011. But again, the season ended in quarters against Wellington-Napoleon - this time a 51-40 loss to the eventual state champions at Liberty North.
Another year later, another corner turned. The Eagles (27-3) in 2023 broke their quarterfinal curse, dominating Miller this past Saturday, 55-39, at the MWSU Fieldhouse to clinch their first Final Four berth since 1986.
"I know as a player, I always strived for that goal," said LeBlond coach Jackie Steltenpohl, a LeBlond alum and four-year letterwinner for Benedictine. "I'm just proud of how hard this team this year has worked, leading up to these last four years. Especially these seniors. I'm just so proud of how hard they've been working and...they achieved that goal."
LeBlond, ranked No. 1 in Class 2 for at least the last month, started the year 20-0. Ten of their wins this season have come against teams that won 20 or more games.
In fact, LeBlond this season alone has faced five teams from two states in four different classes that have made it to state semifinals.
Tipton (29-1), Meadville (29-0), Platte Valley (27-3), Benton (25-3) and Nebraska's Falls City Sacred Heart (26-3). LeBlond's record against these teams is 3-2.
Sacred Heart just won a state title in Class D2, and LeBlond beat them on the road back in December, 47-35. Tipton's only loss on the season is to LeBlond in the Hall of Fame Classic in Bolivar.
The Eagles' first loss of the season came at home to Meadville - a mighty impressive, undefeated team that's been at the top of Class 1 all season long.
LeBlond also took losses late in the season to Class 4 state tournament qualifiers in St. Pius X and Benton. The Eagles lost in the South Side to a Benton team that's on the brink of its third straight Final Four.
All of this to say, it's a hard to find a moment that's too big for this LeBlond team.
"We've been through a lot," said senior Katie Beam. "It's nothing we can't handle, but we're all looking forward to it and are very excited right now."
"I think it's proven to the community that we deserve to be here," Steltenpohl added. "(The schedule) gave our girls confidence more than anyone really recognized, and I think that helped push us through the whole season."
While strength of schedule and consecutive years of quarterfinal heartbreak have hardened this team, the family ties, have bound it together.
Steltenpohl, a 2011 LeBlond graduate, is assisted in coaching by her father, Mike Ziesel, who spent a combined 42 years as an educator at Benton, including 19 as a boys' basketball coach and 15 as the athletic director.
Ziesel's granddaughter, and Steltenpohl's niece, is junior and starting guard/forward Kaleigh Ziesel.
"It can be challenging at times, since we're family," Ziesel laughed. "They always like to yell at me, but you just move past it, because you know they just want you to do your best."
"That picture (see above) brings a tear to my eyes," Steltenpohl said. "But...I'm just proud of how hard they worked."
The family ties don't end there. Senior guard Katie Beam is joined on the team by her sister, Kayla, a junior. Together, they've been sharp shooters all season, particularly from long range.
"Man, it's been fun," Katie said. "We've been playing together since we were like three. So, to get to do this with (Kayla) and give it our all one last time before I go to college will be very memorable."
Whether by blood or by bond, this LeBlond team is a tight knit one. It's a team that has seen plenty of ups and downs just in the last couple of years alone.
Still, this group has achieved some major milestones with one more still to check off -the first state title for LeBlond girls' basketball since 1983.
"I think our girls are mentally prepared to win the first game and from there, we'll be ready for the next one."
LeBlond faces New Haven in state semifinals on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Hammons Student Center in Springfield. The game will be broadcast on KFEQ Radio (680, 95.3) with coverage starting at 5:45 p.m.
LeBlond will then play for either 3rd place on Saturday at noon, or for a Class 2 championship on Saturday at 8 p.m. Regardless, Saturday's game will be on KFEQ as well. 680, 95.3, 680kfeq.com and the KFEQ app.
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.