Queen of the court

Tough loss the night before, practice the following day complete. Hayley Kropp still wasn’t ready to call it quits.

Couldn’t stay at Polk County High with the boys varsity needing the court. Couldn’t go to Polk County Middle with a game there. Could go to teammate Sarah Phipps’ house and use her court.

Off Kropp went.

“All of the nets were taken, so, we went to my house to practice on my outside court in the cold,” Phipps recalled. “My two younger brothers met us down there, and we played for probably a hour. That was all of my energy for the day, and I went up to the house.

“Hayley stayed down on my court and shot until it got dark, then she turned on the lights and kept shooting until bedtime. . . she is amazing.”

All Hayley Kropp ever wanted to be is the best basketball player in Polk County history.

The 6 a.m. workouts, the shooting after practice before being chased out of the gym, the long nights in backyards of friends. It’s the lesson she learned from her parents, Karl and Teresa. It’s the lesson her current head coach and mentor, Brandy Alm, has preached since the two first met at Polk County Middle School. You want to succeed? You work at it.

“You don’t put the work in, you can’t be the best,” Kropp said. “I think work ethic is a big part of being a good athlete.”

And so Kropp has worked. Three-sport athlete at Polk County. Travel basketball with the WNC Lady Royals. Camps and drills and workouts and CrossFit and a thousand other things, all with one goal in mind.

One moment.

A moment that arrived Feb. 9 in the unfriendly sea of red known as Hendersonville’s Pardue Gym. Dribbling on the right wing, shaking free from a defender and with room to shoot, Kropp launched a 3-pointer. The shot curled around the rim for a second and softly dropped through. Just like that, Hayley Kropp had scored more points than anyone ever to wear a Polk County basketball uniform.

Hayley, a very good case could be made, had become the best.

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“My senior year, I had a class that was right across from Hayley’s freshman math class. During basketball tryouts, Hayley would be extremely quiet, she would keep to herself and play the game. It was very clear that Hayley would be a major contributor to the varsity program even as a freshman, but I don’t think she ever paid attention to that. To her she was just another player on the court.

“Throughout the first couple of practices, Hayley didn’t know us older girls that well, so she hadn’t quite broken her shell until one random day during stretches, the whole team got to talking about how to properly cook ramen noodles. Hayley and I had very different strategies on the topic and she finally looked at me and said, “Fine! Tomorrow, come over before practice and I’ll cook them my way and you’ll cook them yours and we will just see whose is better.”

“From that day forward, we found the most random things to bond over, and she eventually told me that she was scared us older girls were mean because she was just a little newbie on the team.” – Amber Lynch, one of Kropp’s closest friends.

As Polk County Middle School held its girls basketball practices, Brandy Alm would sometimes notice the quiet kid sitting in the bleachers, intently watching.

Alm soon learned that shy kid who rarely made any noise was Ashley Kropp’s twin sister. Ashley was a seventh grader, a member of the team, but a medical situation caused Hayley to miss most of one year in elementary school and put the twins in different grades. So Hayley watched, and waited, for the debut that would come a year later.

“Hayley was so quiet and reserved in seventh grade,” Alm recalled. “She was always the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. Some things never change.

“When she first started middle school, you could barely hear her call plays. She was not vocal. By the end of her eighth grade year, she became more confident and I could definitely see what an incredible leader she was becoming.”

With the newfound confidence came a growing love for basketball. Kropp also played volleyball and softball in middle school, but Alm ignited Kropp’s passion for the hardwood. In the 84 feet between the lines Kropp felt at home, felt challenged, felt elated.

“It’s so fast paced and you can control the game,” Kropp said. “In different sports you can’t control what happens. (In basketball) you’re going all the time. It’s just nonstop and I like that kind of thing.”

Volleyball would soon be dropped – “too boring,” Kropp said. Softball would remain, but her second love.

Basketball would be Kropp’s focus as she headed to Polk County High School.

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“One game last season, Hayley didn’t play like herself. I actually caught her walking down the court in defensive transition. I asked if she was okay and she assured me all was well. Then she did it again right before the half. So I let her have it during halftime. I think I may have even scared some of the other girls.

“We ended up losing, but she pushed through the second half and played better. Ashley, her sister, told me the next day Hayley had a temperature of over 100 degrees when they got home and had been sick. The whole time I had been yelling and screaming, she never told me she was sick. She just nodded her head and said yes, ma’am. She never makes excuses and has the heart of a lion.” – Brandy Alm

It is an all-too-familiar scene for Polk County opponents – Hayley Kropp standing at the top of the key, dribbling from right hand to left and back to right, deciding what to do next.

Early in her career, the options would have revolved largely around driving toward the basket. It is perhaps the heart of Kropp’s game, the dribble and drive, a layup or foul likely awaiting; nearly 25 percent of Kropp’s 1,608 career points have come from the foul line. And she relied on it heavily throughout her first two seasons as a Wolverine.

The road to becoming Polk County’s all-time leading scorer started with a bit of a detour – Kropp opened her high school career with a 3-of-14 performance from the field, scoring eight points in a 41-40 loss to Rosman. A 13-point effort against Landrum would follow, and Kropp would be on her way to finishing her freshman season averaging nearly 11 points a game. She then dropped 20 points on East Henderson to open her sophomore year, closed with 12 consecutive double-figure games and averaged 15.7 points as Polk finished 13-11.

The offseason, though, brought perhaps the biggest moment in Kropp’s high school career – the naming of Alm to replace retiring head coach Craig Culbreth. The move reunited Kropp with Alm’s aggressive, up-tempo style, so well suited to her game. Alm, though, wanted to add another dimension, to make Kropp as tough to defend on the perimeter as in the paint.

“She changed my game completely,” Kropp said of Alm. “I didn’t start shooting the ball well until last year. She’s changed my shot, and all of her drills have made me faster and quicker. She’s changed me into a different kind of basketball player. I couldn’t score and rebound if it weren’t for her.”

Alm moved Kropp inside on defense to take advantage of her athleticism and nose for the ball; she grabbed eight rebounds per game to lead the team. The improved perimeter skills and growing confidence spurred Kropp to shoot from the outside more often without sacrificing her penetration and transition strengths; she shot 40 more free throws than in any of the previous two seasons and her scoring remained steady at 15.6 points per game. Just as importantly, she teamed with seniors Kara Overholt and Sarah Phipps to help the Wolverines finish with a 17-9 record and notch the first 2A playoff win in the program’s history.

And garner the attention of more than a few opponents.

“Hayley is a great competitor,” said Mountain Heritage head girls basketball coach Susie Shelton. “She shows up every night and plays hard. She is not only a great scorer but a very good all-around player. She can attack off the dribble and shoot the pull-up three.”

As her game grew more complete, so too did her impact upon the team.

“Hayley was a phenomenal teammate,” Phipps said. “Hayley leads by example and puts fire in her teammates’ eyes to want to win, to want to be better. I wanted to get on the court and give 100 percent like Hayley did.”

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“One game she dropped 37 points, broke another school record and played an amazing game with yet another double-double, but we lost. Following the game, no one talks too much to Hayley. They sit with her and talk amongst themselves. No matter what her stats are, she is not happy. She replays the game in her head and watches film. Discussing what she could’ve done differently, the shots she missed, fouls she shouldn’t have committed, passes she should’ve made and so on.

“She is such a competitor, a fighter, a fearless leader and hands down has the most disciplined work ethic I’ve ever seen as a player in high school, travel ball, college or since I’ve been coaching. If you have had the privilege of playing with or coaching Hayley Kropp, you know exactly how tenacious and focused she is in practice every day.” – Brandy Alm.

Karl Kropp may have occasionally slipped into a car separate from his daughter after a Polk County loss.

“It’s a rough night at home, and it may go into the next day,” Kropp said. “Hayley doesn’t like to lose.”

“I don’t like to lose anything at all. I hate losing,” Hayley Kropp concurs.

It is the paradox that has defined Kropp’s senior year: She has put together perhaps the finest individual statistical season in school history – 26 points, 12 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 assists per game – but it is the Wolverines’ 9-13 record that has been her biggest concern.

The lone senior on a roster filled with freshmen and sophomores, Kropp has been asked to bear the burden of leadership in addition to her myriad other duties. Although her numbers are the best of her career – the best of a lot of careers – being the voice of the team, its role model, has been the biggest challenge.

“It’s been kind of hard, but I’ve gotten used to it,” Kropp said. “Coach Alm told me I needed to be louder and explain things. Last year, Kara and Sarah did that type of thing. When it comes to the game, I don’t explain things very well. I can show them how to do it, but I don’t explain it that well. But it’s been fun and a learning experience.”

“Brandy has done a good job making her more of a leader,” Karl Kropp said. “We’ve tried to teach all of our kids to be leaders rather than followers.”

Kropp hasn’t been afraid to bark at teammates on the court and during timeouts, but has more often let her play serve as an example for the younger Wolverines. Kropp may well finish this season as not only the leading scorer in Western North Carolina, but also the leading rebounder. Think about that – a 5-7 guard grabbing 12 rebounds a game. The boards may be where her competitive streak most surfaces.

“Hayley has many fundamental strengths – her ability to read the defense, driving to the basket, shooting, ball handling, passing, quick hands and quick feet,” Alm said. “But an amazing quality you can’t teach and continues to baffle teams is the shear determination and drive this kid has.

“From day one she has always worked hard, relentless effort on the defensive end and an undeniable nose for the basketball.”

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“Something about Hayley that would surprise most people is that she is very sweet-natured. Hayley would give anyone the shirt off her back if they needed it. She is so caring and compassionate about what she does and those who surround her. Because Hayley is so naturally athletic, most people only see the athletic side of Hayley, but she has a huge sense of humor, she could make anyone laugh, she has a girly side underneath her Elites and Nikes and she loves to hang out with friends and eat lots of food.” – Amber Lynch.

The end of her Polk County basketball career at hand, Hayley Kropp is ready for her next challenge.

Kropp has talked with multiple colleges, and she is optimistic a playing opportunity will be there for her next season. She refuses to think about the alternative.

“I don’t want my basketball career to end,” Kropp admits after a pause. “I want to keep playing until I get old, until my body says no.

“It kind of scares me when I think about that. I don’t know what I’d do. Just go to college, get a degree and coach. Maybe I’d come back and coach with Coach Alm.”

Perhaps another chapter will one day be added to Kropp’s Polk County legacy. What’s already in place is pretty good.

Just maybe the best.

“I want people to remember me as a good person,” Kropp said.

“My goal is always to be the best, and hopefully I’ve done that and people will remember that.”

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Kropp and the Records

A look at Polk County girls basketball records set or tied by Hayley Kropp through the end of the 2015-2016 regular season:

Most points scored in a game – 38 (old record, 35)
Most 2-point shots made in a game – 10 (old record, 9)
Most 3-point shots made in a game – 5 (old record, 5)
Most free throws attempted in a game – 18 (old record, 18)
Most free throws made in a game – 16 (old record, 15)
Most points in a season – 575 (old record, 409)
Highest point average in a season – 26.1 (old record, 16.3)
Most free throws attempted in a season – 223 (old record, 175)
Most free throws made in a season – 165 (old record, 137)
Most 3-point shots in a season – 50 (current record, 49)
Most points scored in a career – 1,608 (old record, 1,084)
Highest point average in a career – currently 16.8 (old record, 11.7)
Most 2-point shots made in a career – 463 (old record, 445)
Most free throw attempts in a career – 572 (old record, 457)
Most free throws made in a career – 382 (old record, 310)
Most steals in a career – 394 (old record, 296)
Most 3-point shots made in a career – 100 (old record, 100)
Best 2-point pct. in a season – 0.52 (old record, 0.52)
Most points scored by any player, male or female – 1,608 (old record, 1,601)

Kropp also has an outside shot at four other records:

Most assists in a career – 259 (current record, 265)
Most 2-point shots made in a season – 130 (current record, 137)
Most steals in a season – 118 (current record, 120)
Most rebounds in a season – 271 (current record, 301)