COLUMBIA — Makenzie Skrabal stood up and clapped for her teammates.
Perhaps fitting for a player praised for her selflessness and leadership, Skrabal spent the final quarter of Saturday's Rock Bridge girls basketball game offering encouragement to her younger teammates from the bench.
After completing the regular season with a 19-5 record and the top ranking in Missouri's Class 5, Rock Bridge will begin preparing for next week's District 9 Tournament hosted by Hickman High School. The Bruins' path to another state championship will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday against the winner of Monday's Smith-Cotton/Jefferson City matchup.
The Bruins' senior scored the first five points of the third quarter, and Rock Bridge (19-5) controlled the clock the rest of the way, defeating Nerinx Hall, 71-38.
Measuring just 5 feet 6 inches tall, Skrabal used her shifty footwork and excellent court vision to put the game out of reach, dribbling past a couple of Markers' defenders and finding a cutting Sophie Cunningham for a pair of easy layups as the Bruins stretched the lead to 25.
Skrabal hasn't always enjoyed such an easy go of it at Rock Bridge.
After starring for the Bruins' junior varsity team her freshman year, Skrabal injured the labrum in her right shoulder during a softball game. The injury required an operation and knocked Skrabal out of sports for a year, forcing her to reconsider her place on the team.
"When I was a sophomore, I didn't really think I'd be where I am right now," Skrabal said. "Sitting on the bench injured, and now coming out and being able to start for this team, it's unbelievable."
With time to think about life after sports, Skrabal's injury helped affirm her goals of becoming a physical therapist, and her family thought that she would choose a college based on that. Now, Skrabal's sifting through scholarship offers she's fielded from smaller schools to play college basketball.
"She really had to fight back her junior year," said her father Ed Skrabal. "She 's very close to her teammates and they helped her through the injury."
During her junior season, Skrabel backed up point guard Lindsey Cunningham, who's now playing at Missouri. She learned how to do the "dirty work" from Cunningham, soaking up knowledge about playing point guard.
After Rock Bridge won last season's state championship, Skrabal set out to play point guard in the same mold as Cunningham, sacrificing individual numbers for the benefit of the team.
The plan worked. Skrabal won a starting job in the off-season. Her quiet leadership and strong shooting has helped propel the Bruins to a No. 1 ranking in Missouri's Class 5, according to MaxPreps.
Skrabal is "a kid that, every time she shoots it, she's a kid that you think is going to knock a shot down," Bruins coach Jill Nagel said. "She's done a great job with her rebounding, getting into the paint against the bigger kids and putting a body on them. That's just a bonus when your point guard is getting boards for you in the paint."
Skrabal's scrappy rebounding was on display in the third quarter, when she pushed through a pair of taller Nerinx Hall players to grab a loose ball. Then, trapped against the baseline, she found a streaking Chayla Cheadle, and the Bruins scored another easy basket.
It was Skrabal's ability to know her role and her willingness to accept it that put her in a position to succeed during her final season in a Rock Bridge jersey.
"She knew coming off an injury not to expect to be a starter," Nagel said. "She took what was given to her, took advantage of the opportunities she had, and built upon it day-by-day."
During Saturday's game, Sophie Cunningham and Cheadle drove into the lane on multiple occasions, kicking the ball out to Skrabal as the defense collapsed into the post.
The ball left Skrabal's fingertips with the same arcing trajectory each time, rotating through the cylinder for another 3-pointer as the Bruins pulled away from their opponent. It was a familiar scene for her teammates.
"Makenzie's silent, but deadly," said Sophie Cunningham, who paced the Bruins with a game-high 17 points, just ahead of Skrabal who scored 13. "She knew she had to step up, and she's done it for us all year long."