Kaylee Van Eps stood between teammates Ashley Schuelke and Anna Lenzen on senior night. Every bit of their speeches brought a fit of laughter, a few tears, a hand covering the face with every inside joke.
Lenzen was describing one of her best friends in life, and only a small part of what she talked about was the on-court stuff. Because what makes Van Eps so special includes basketball, but also everything else around her.
The Chaska High School senior is a three-sport captain in soccer, basketball and lacrosse. She'll finish with 13 letters, a starter on the basketball team since the third game of her eighth-grade season.
Off the court, Van Eps is the president of the Chaska Yearbook. Van Eps is happy to report the 2021 edition is complete, off to printer. She's the treasurer for DECA, an extracurricular that shares a passion of hers with business. Van Eps qualified for state with basketball teammate Kayla Hendrickson this year. She's also vice president of National Honor Society.
"It's been fun to try and plan activities around COVID. We just had our induction ceremony. Of course virtually, which was interesting, but worked out really well. It's always great to have those volunteer opportunities, help out in the community as well," Van Eps said.
She has also been a strong believer and co-president of CAP, a group that promotes zero chemical use athletes and high school students.
"I've met a ton of people through CAP. It's something morally I have always stood for, being chemically-free. Now I get to be that role model for younger girls," Van Eps said.
And recently she was named the Athena Award winner for Chaska High School for the 2020-21 school year.
"It's hard to put into words the positive impact Kaylee has had on the Chaska Girls Basketball program. She is a such a driven, hard-working young lady and has set such an amazing example both on and off the court. I have been blessed to get to coach her and to have her play in our basketball program. I am so proud of Kaylee and she will continue to do big things going forward!" said Chaska Head Coach Tara Seifert.
Van Eps remembers the early days in the Chaska Youth Basketball Association — those first travel championships won. Hendrickson, a great friend since elementary school, was on those teams. So was current teammate Kennedy Sanders, a second grader moved up.
Basketball was her first love.
"I have so many memories of basketball, so many memories of playing with my teammates. I always like to go back to fourth grade, the early years. My dad was the coach. I remember the first tournament we won. How that felt. How playing with those girls was just a great feeling. There's so many photos. There's a highlight video either Lucy's (Dardis) or Payton's (Wurtz) dad made. I got into seventh, eighth grade, and I just fell in love with it more," she said.
Joining the high school team was scary, Van Eps said, but the senior group that year welcomed her, and made her feel like family.
"That's what basketball is to me. Family. They are my sisters. That's what Coach T pounded all five years I've been with her. That's why I love playing. It's playing with the family that the game creates," Van Eps said.
She reached 1,000 career points last year as a junior, coincidentally in the same game as teammate Mallory Heyer, and will finish as a five-time all-Metro West Conference selection.
She was all-state honorable mention in 2020, was selected to four all-conference defensive teams and was a two-year captain.
Her parents, Scott and Amy, figure their daughter between high school, AAU with Minnesota Fury (two-time state champion) and youth travel basketball days, has played in more than 700 games.
And that's just basketball.
Scott Van Eps remembers times Kaylee had AAU and CC United commitments on the same weekend. They would shuttle her back and forth from game to game.
And then because Van Eps didn't have enough to do, she joined lacrosse while in high school.
"That was Carly Goetz (former Hawks, now lacrosse player at Virginia Tech). My eighth-grade year I decided AAU and club soccer during the summer was going to be way, way too much for me. It was taking a toll on my body. It was taking a toll on me mentally. Carly was there and she's telling me 'You'd be great at lacrosse. Come try it out.' I went to a couple of captain's practices and I was really interested. I had time in the spring, so I went out for it. I'm really glad I did. It's been an awesome experience. I just go out and have fun with it."
Steve Vuolo, who coached Van Eps on the Chaska soccer team the past four seasons, has followed one of his strongest leaders on her other teams often. Stopping in the gym from time to time in the 2019-20 season, and via stream in 2021.
He just smiled after one game last fall when asked about Van Eps' play. A do-everything, give-it-her-all type of player from start to finish. A player that wasn't happy with her performance unless she left the pitch with an ice bag or two.
The training room at Chaska High School could be renamed after her, for the blood, sweat and tears poured in over the years as a Hawk.
"After the soccer season was over, I had so many people tell me that. I was on the ground all the time in soccer. Morgan, our trainer, would always come out to me for some random reason. My head hurt. Something happened. I was always getting banged up," Van Eps said.
And yet you could expect to find Van Eps out on the field, on the court, on the turf, 100% or not.
She's "one-of-a-kind," Seifert said.
"I'm competitive. I want to do everything I can to help the team. I want to give everything I have every game to help the team succeed," Van Eps said.
Saturday's post-semifinal victory practice brought words of advice from Seifert. Go home and rest. Something tough for Van Eps to do.
While she did throw some attempts in the driveway through a stiff wind, Van Eps followed through, catching some NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament games over the weekend.
7 p.m. Sunday was reserved for watching Lehigh University (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) in the Big Dance.
It is where Van Eps will elevate her game to new heights in college. From a Hawk to a Mountain Hawk.
Lehigh has become a Minnesota East of sorts. This year's roster featured six Minnesotans, including Minnetonka High School graduate Megan Walker. Former Skipper state champion Hannah Hedstrom played four years there recently as well.
"When I started talking to Lehigh, I knew I wanted to talk to someone out there. I got in touch with Mackenzie Kramer (of St. Michael-Albertville). I asked her a bunch of questions, talked with her. Then she got me in touch with Frannie (Hottinger) of Cretin-Derham Hall. That was really good. I was able to get to know the players. I had four or five Zoom calls with the coaches individually, or together with my parents. So that all really helped me decide," Van Eps said.
With a planned visit canceled last spring due to COVID, and tight restrictions continuing, limiting an opportunity to visit, despite never stepping on campus, Van Eps committed to the program May 2020. Some six years after receiving her first Division I offer as a seventh grader.
"I've met all six of the Minnesotans. I met them in person. After I committed I was able to get to know them, play with them, and I felt so comfortable right away. I felt so happy with the decision I made right away. The decision I made was a lot on the community Lehigh has built, and the great program they have. It's far away, but I feel like it can be my new home," Van Eps said.
While her future is known, the present is something on the minds of Van Eps, her teammates and her coaches.
Chaska, undefeated at 14-0, ranked No. 3 in the state of Minnesota, in the top-25 nationally according to ESPN, is one win from the program's first state tournament appearance since 2010.
Van Eps felt Chaska had a good shot in 2019, then a sophomore. A dreadful shooting night for the Hawks cost them in the Section 2-4A semifinals against Shakopee.
Chaska didn't have its best game in the 2020 section championship. Eden Prairie took advantage, celebrating a title win on the Hawks' court just a week before the pandemic began to shut down sports.
"For me, I definitely think back to those games. After our win over Shakopee last Friday, part of me felt like that was kind of revenge from a couple of years ago. Maybe not revenge, but something close. Chaska's had some tough losses to Shakopee over the years. I was there when Taylor Koenen hit that long shot at the buzzer. It was heartbreaking. I was crushed. I don't want to feel that. I don't want to feel like we did last year," Van Eps said.
Now, this is the last chance for Van Eps. For Hendrickson, for Kelsey Willems. Thursday night, 7 p.m., a rematch with Minnetonka for the section crown. The Hawks once again the home team.
Win-or-lose, it will be the final game in Chaska High School gym for Van Eps.
"It's kind of crazy when I sit back and really think about it. She is a special kid and we are very proud parents! It is a blast to be able to watch it all," Scott Van Eps said.
Sets state record
The question floating around many metro school districts is whether online learning opportunities will continue in the 2021-22 school year if in-person learning is available full-time in the fall.
The answer is 'unlikely' in Eastern Carver County Schools.
That is after more than 2,600 responses from district families resulted in less than 200 commitments in grades Pre-K through 11.
"All of our families have experienced (Online Learning Academy), Distance Learning 2.0, and we still don't have a high level of commitment. There is an extremely high value from our community with in-person learning at all levels," said Chris Hentges, District 112 Leader of Personalized Learning: Digital Services, at a March 15 school board meeting.
Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams tasked Hentges and his team to not only survey every district family, but to build what an online model may look like at all three levels, elementary, middle school and secondary, and analyze the findings and see where trends were developing.
"All we heard was everyone wanted this. Districts are racing to do it. Instead, they went out and really found out," Sayles-Adams said, about Hentges and his team. "Looking at the data, it shows something different. We wanted to make sure we didn't miss an opportunity."
In total, 2,648 responses were received, along with dialogue and feedback from all building administrators.
"As we analyzed the data and the feedback, what we were really looking for is the number of students that would commit if we were to offer. K-8, specifically, or high school. As we thought about those commitments, we had to make sure we could create a cost-neutral staffing plan in a sustainable program. Not something we run for one year and cut, but something we could establish from a long-term perspective," Hentges said.
The three critical goals for the Online Learning Academy for the current school year were:
"These are three areas where we have spent a lot of time throughout the course of this year working with teachers, working with students, and working with our families," Hentges said.
So, what were the findings?
Currently, OLA for elementary students is treated like a ninth elementary building. Schedules are separate from in-person learners. Jay Woller, principal at East Union Elementary, and Hentges, have provided administrative oversight.
Of the 4,165 students currently in grades pre-K through fourth grade, 1,845 surveys responded with "no interest" in online learning. The commitment number was just 40, or 0.9%.
At the district's three middle schools, online classes are embedded into the middle school schedule, and like elementary, there is a balance of synchronous and asynchronous. Students have full schedule of online classes with the three buildings working together on enrollment and staffing.
Because of this, a student may have a teacher, or may be classmates, with anyone from the three middle schools.
Of the 1,996 students currently in grades five through seven, 818 responses said "no interest," while only 36 students, or 1.7%, would commit.
That led Hentges and his team to decide that because of a lack of future sustainability, and there being no cost-neutral plan, ECCS will not explore an Online Learning Academy option for 2021-22 for grades kindergarten through eighth grade.
While numbers were similar with students in grades eight through 11 — just 120 commits among 3,033 students with 723 "no interest" responses — the district will continue to offer online learning in core classes for juniors and seniors.
Currently, those courses are English 12 and 11, Human Geography, Economics, U.S. Government, Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry and, at this time, Biology.
"Talking with other school districts, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Shakopee, Bloomington, some have established programs, others are looking to establish online courses. The common theme is that they want to focus on senior and junior year core classes," Hentges said.
If enough students are not interested in a class, it will not be offered, Hentges said.
"Some of our next steps are communicating with students the course offerings that will go online. ... We will be working with the teachers that will be teaching these classes this spring on further development of course design, professional development, assessment work, engagement, and learning. Really, it's using the ECCS online learning standards and framework we built over the summer, that we have integrated into our work this year, as the foundation of that work," Hentges said.
Fred Breg, school board member and retired teacher, commented on the results.
"This is the new and shiny thing. Some of us are instinctively attracted to something shiny. Maybe they found out with everything that was going on this year that the new and shiny isn't as good as having the old guy, or young lady, standing in the room and working with them in an individual basis," he said.