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Stewartville's Steele at the top of her seasoned game

Third-year Stewartville starting guard Keeley Steele has the Tigers thinking and playing big.

Austin, Stewartville Section 1AAA Championship girls basketball
Stewartville's Keeley Steele (25) is introduced during a Section 1AAA Championship girls basketball game against Austin on March 11, 2022, at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER — Things have never been quite this good for Keeley Steele.

Give the Stewartville senior guard the credit for that.

Steele has forever been a vital piece for the Tigers, a team that has gone 53-12 in her three years as a starter.

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But this season has been different. Never has Stewartville been as talented, deep and promising as it is right now. The Tigers are 15-2, ranked No. 7 in Class AAA and after routing powerful Caledonia 81-59 on Saturday in the HVL-TRC Showdown at Mayo Civic Auditorium, have won 12 straight.

Stewartville is loaded, with nine players who’d start on almost any other outfit in the state. Still, even with that embarrassment of riches, Steele’s importance has never been greater.

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The fast, quick, strong and determined senior has made that happen, having made this the best-ever version of herself.

“Keeley has become a top defender for us now,” Stewartville coach Ryan Liffrig said. “Last year — and she probably wouldn’t like me saying this — but we didn’t always feel comfortable putting her on the other team’s best player. But she has become such a good athlete now to go with her skills. She is faster, can jump higher and can move side to side better. In every category, she’s gotten a little bit better. She’s worked out a lot, having done lots of sprinting and workouts at ETS.”

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Stewartville senior guard Keeley Steele gets ready to apply full-court defense as Caledonia's Ava Privet inbounds the ball on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, at Mayo Civic Auditorium.
Pat Ruff / Post Bulletin

And what has that all added up to on the court? Well, witness Saturday night.

“When we went man-to-man, we put her on Caledonia’s best player,” Liffrig said.

On a Stewartville team loaded with scorers, Steele can also do that.

The 5-foot-8 senior — who shares the backcourt with one of southeastern Minnesota’s best players, senior point guard and fellow long-time starter Haylie Strum — finished with 14 points on Saturday. Steele got them on quick and determined drives and some deep shots, including one 3-pointer.

Steele can do it all

She’s actually been on a scoring tear of late. For six straight games, she’s been in double figures. That includes scorching with a 15-point first half recently.

But that is not Steele’s goal, to score. If she were to make out a to-do list, putting the ball in the hoop would be near the bottom.

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Resoundingly in first place is to win and for her to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

“I just want to win; it’s fun to win,” Steele said with a smile. “I’ve definitely never played on a team as good as this one. We all work so hard and we all put in extra time outside of practice, with Rochester Athletic Club memberships where we shoot, and almost all of us in weight-lifting programs.”

Steele considers her top two requirements to be defense and on a team that is loaded with young players, including three ultra-talented freshmen playing big minutes, to be a leader.

Steele takes that defense seriously because she knows what it leads to.

“We have so many scorers that I’d like to focus my energy on defense because that leads to good offense,” she said. “If I get opportunities on offense, then I do. But when I’m playing good defense, I’m helping my team in a different way.”

As much as Steele has taken defense to heart, she takes her leadership role just as seriously.

Steele recalls when she was the age of current Stewartville varsity freshmen Audrey Shindelar, Ella Theobald, Jayci Rath and Addi Ruffridge. Steele knows it’s not easy to be that young with the emotional ups and downs of a five-month varsity basketball season.

So she takes it upon herself to be there for them, always. Steele loves that bunch of freshmen as well as her big-sister role.

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“Those freshmen, they are like our little babies and we take care of them,” Steele said. “I try to be a leader and keep the team together. When a player gets upset, I want to help them get their attitude back up.”

Steele knows where all of that leads — to a happy, winning season.

And she’s hoping it also leads the Tigers to their ultimate destination, the state tournament. That’s a place no Stewartville girls or boys team has ever been.

Steele thinks it’s time.

“Our goal on this team is to make it to state,” Steele said. “And if we go there, why not win it all.”

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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