Athletic, skilled, passionate: Stewartville's Strum is the PB's Girls Basketball Player of the Year
Haylie Strum made the last of her four varsity basketball seasons her best, and she did it as she guided the Stewartville girls on a magical and historic ride.
STEWARTVILLE — At first glance, Haylie Strum doesn’t necessarily own the look of an elite athlete.
The Stewartville point guard is a long-limbed 5-foot-6, with slender legs and arms, and rosy cheeks. It’s almost the look of a marionette, like she could be controlled from above by strings or wires.
And then the game starts and there she goes, Strum offering her nightly reminder to never, ever judge this tough, talented and non-stop senior basketball player by her innocent look.
Strum did that for 32 games this season, 29 of them wins. En route, she led her Tigers to the Class AAA state tournament final as well as earned our top award.
Strum is the Post Bulletin Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
“Strum has so much heart, plays with so much effort and never backs down to anyone,” Stewartville coach Ryan Liffrig said. “That was never more obvious than in the first round at state this year. We were playing Grand Rapids and at halftime Haylie said, ‘I want (to guard) No. 20. I want her.’ ”
No. 20 was Grand Rapids’ Jessika Lofstrom. Liffrig happily gave Strum permission to have at her.
“When Haylie says she wants that, you don’t say no to her,” Liffrig said.
The Tigers' eighth-year coach did the right thing. Lofstrom had 13 points at halftime. It was a drastically different tale in the second half, when — thanks to all of Strum’s harassing — she managed five, giving her 18 for the game.
Stewarville was built all season around the non-stop, end-to-end defense that Liffrig has been teaching since he arrived at the school. Nobody has come to embrace it or do it any better than Strum, who also had a heck of a tag-team partner in fellow senior guard Keeley Steele, both of them four-year starters, and both quick, fast and tenacious.
“Our coach always puts it in our minds that we need to work as hard as possible,” Strum said. “There are no breaks on defense at all. If you’re not working hard on defense, you don’t deserve to play offense.”
It was an approach that helped lead Stewartville to a brilliant season, with 26 straight wins, the program’s first-ever trip to the state tournament and ultimately that runner-up state finish.
Leading this band of sisters was that tough, fast, wiry strong and skilled point-guard Strum, who averaged 15.5 points (50% field-goal shooting, 40% on 3-pointers), 3.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game. She did all of that while often playing just a bit more than a half in games, the Tigers with so many blowout wins.
Strum, also named All-State this season, had never had a more enjoyable four months in her life.
“I’m missing it right now,” said Strum, a 4.0 GPA student who also excels in track and field where she is one of the top hurdlers in the state and a strong 400 runner. “As I look back on it, I think the word I’d use for how I feel about the season is ‘grateful.’ I’m just grateful for what we were able to accomplish. We all thought we could do something great with this team.”
Things didn’t start out great for the Tigers. They won just three of their first five games, including a six-point setback to Byron, a team they’d later beat by 19.
But things took off immediately after the Byron loss.
Credit much of that to Strum. And it wasn’t just her basketball skills that allowed Stewartville to take off. It was her leadership, something she was called on to provide in a big way for the first time in her basketball life.
Now in her fourth season with the varsity, it was finally her turn, and she jumped at the chance to guide.
“I knew going into my senior year that I had to be a leader,” Strum said. “So I kind of went with it. I took the younger girls under my wing. We all tried to do everything together. In the huddles, we’d talk about playing for each other. I wanted to be a good example and to show that we needed to work hard, needed to be nice to each other and to love each other. I used my voice a lot more this season and it was nice having Keeley by my side (as another outstanding senior leader and player).”
Until this season, Strum wasn’t really equipped to lead. Her emotions had gotten in the way previously, her in-game and post-game frustrations almost always self-directed. Missed shots and bad passes could leave her in tears, especially in her grade-school years when she could almost be counted on to cry during games.
Finally, this season, Strum joined her parents and coaches in thinking enough was enough. It was time to stop beating herself up. It was time to be positive and stay that way.
With help especially from longtime Stewartville assistant basketball coach Dawn Miller, Strum got her emotional act together.
“Dawn Miller has always been a rock in my athletic career; she gets me,” said Strum, who is considering a host of Division III colleges for basketball and track. “She has this way about shifting your mind to the positives. It’s something that I am still working on, but I'm grateful that I could be more together this year because I had younger girls looking up to me.”
Young and not-so-young have been looking up to Strum for years. But never as much as this season when she was as complete a player and leader as she’s ever been.
She ended her high school playing career similarly to how she’d started it, showing emotional tears. But this time they flowed for a new reason.
It was because her high school basketball ride was over.
What a magnificent ride it was.