The look of pure relief on Grace Hunter’s face on the night of January 14 spoke volumes.
Bellmont had just defeated rival Norwell on the Squaws’ home court in Decatur. It was the first Bellmont win over Norwell in 11 years and it crowned Hunter and company as the sole champions of the Northeast 8.
Hunter is not one to put herself first. But it was her ability to take over that game and effect it as she wished that propelled Bellmont to the win. It was also a focal point when selecting her as the 2018-19 Outside the Huddle Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“The last four years that Grace has been here, that is what we’ve looked to do on offense,” Bellmont coach Andy Heim said of Hunter’s ability to make games her own. “Her defensive intensity can also take over a game. I think this year, it was a little bit easier for her to take over those games with some of the quality that we put around her. People couldn’t put two or three people on her and there aren’t a lot of people who can guard Grace one-on-one.”
“I am just thankful for all of the training that I have had that lets me do that and the coaches and teammates I have had that trust in my abilities,” Hunter said of her ability to shine offensively.
During her senior season leading Bellmont, Hunter averaged an area best 20.1 points per game, while also putting up team bests in rebounds per game (6.8) and assists per game (2.7). Her 3.1 steals per game was good enough for second best among Bellmont’s strong defensive core.
“I was always bigger than everybody else. When I came to high school I wasn’t bigger than everyone else so I had to develop other parts of my game,” Hunter said. “Training nonstop. The person that has the most heart and desire to win is going to win.”
Hunter scored in single digits twice this season compared to 13 games with 20 or more points. She scored 29 points in the second game of the season, a showcase shooting duel with Concordia’s Carissa Garcia that captivated area audiences and may be considered the best player versus player matchup of the entire season. While Garcia and Concordia won that meeting, it was a quick refocusing for Bellmont. They would not lose another game for over two months and were tripped up just two more times all season, including a sectional final loss to Marion. Along the way, the Squaws scored a second win over Norwell, knocking the Knights out of the postseason.
Along the way, Hunter had big night after big night. And while the first Norwell game will always be a lingering reminder of the success of a senior season, Hunter made her first big notch as an all-time great on December 5 in a monumental win over visiting South Side. That night, Hunter scored 38 points while shooting 62 percent from the field and setting the program record for points scored in a single game.
“That was really the turning point where we thought ‘this is the season, this is it,'” Hunter said. “It is all or nothing.”
“It’s not really necessarily one individual game,” Heim said what stood out about Hunter’s production this season. “It’s all of the games that whether it was out of a timeout or under the basket, it was probably always a play to her and never once did I hesitate calling that play for her and she, more times than not, fulfilled what we wanted to do. Game after game, she is going to give us 100 percent.”
Hunter had already become the program’s all-time leading scorer and went on to become Adams County’s top scoring girls basketball player ever, ending her career with 1,571 points. Former record holder Natalie Young of Adams Central even helped honor Hunter before a game against Leo at the end of the season.
“To be a motivator, you have to be motivated yourself. You have to set an example,” Hunter said. “I’m just very thankful for my teammates that believed in me because we made these changes. This culture has changed and they believed in it.”
Hunter’s scoring total grew each year; from 324 to 391 to 394 to 462 points scored as a senior. She became a top target for defenses from her very first prep game, scoring 21 points in a loss to Garrett and following it up with 24 points five days later against Woodlan. Those games set the standard and Hunter never took her foot off the gas pedal for the next four years.
“When I saw her as a freshman, each year we kind of thought she is going to play a bunch in the summer and do offseason workouts, there is not that much better she can get,” Heim recalled. “Then, each year it seems like there was something else that got a lot better and she always wanted to improve her craft and get better and every year she showed it. I think senior year she showed off all of the range she has.”
What Hunter did for herself stands as a great example and will for years to come. What she helped do for her teammates and program will stand longer. Two years before Grace Hunter, Bellmont went 0-21. From there, the win total just grew from seven during her freshman year to 18, then 19 and finally at 21 games during the 2018-19 season.
“This is the same question I’ve been given since her freshman year. She didn’t walk in and say ‘I’m going to be the leader,’ she didn’t walk in and step on any seniors’ toes that year. She just walked in, worked hard and sort of everybody looked around and said ‘OK, I see who the leader is, I see what we are striving for,'” Heim said.
“She came in and worked hard everybody sort of followed suit.”
After the season ended, Hunter was named First Team All-NE8, IBCA Large School All-State and has been invited to the Top 60 senior workout from Hoosier Basketball Magazine in hopes of being named an Indiana All-Star.
The next journey will lead Hunter to Northern Illinois to play Division I basketball. What kind of player will she be on the next level?
“I can guarantee that they are going to get someone that if she fails at something, she is going to work as hard as she can to improve on that something and no matter what situation she is in, she is going to be 100 percent invested in what they are telling her and what she is doing,” Heim said.
“I love Northern Illinois. It is home,” Hunter added. “What I can promise them is I am going to work my backside off for them no matter if it’s on the court, off the court, in the classroom or in the community. I am going to do my very best to make them not regret bringing me on.”