Lexi Kerstein kept charging forward Thursday night.
Even when the odds looked insurmountable, the Deerfield junior guard pushed the pace and attacked the basket against Maine South.
Kerstein, who helped the Warriors win their first regional title since 2007 as a freshman, said she has gained a different perspective on basketball in her third varsity season. She suffered a knee injury during a game against Hersey on Jan. 22 and feared the worst. Several days later, she entered COVID-19 protocols along with her sister Nikki, a freshman guard.
“I definitely was freaked out at first with my injury,” Kerstein said. “I didn’t know what happened. I went up and came down.
“I think I learned from it — just to keep pushing no matter what happens in the outcome because it’s going to make you better and take you far. After the ball stops bouncing, it will continue to build upon your success in life and school and your job.”
Kerstein played like it against Maine South, scoring 11 of her team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter of Deerfield’s 72-65 loss in the Central Suburban League championship game in Park Ridge.
Kerstein, the CSL North player of the year who’s averaging a team-high 17.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, hit two of her three 3-pointers in the Warriors’ frantic comeback that closed a 17-point gap to two with just over two minutes left.
“I was definitely a little slow coming out, but I had to keep pushing through and keep fighting,” Kerstein said. “It was an unfortunate loss, but it was a great fight.”
Freshman guard Aubrey Galvan had 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals for Deerfield (23-5), which outscored the Hawks (20-8) 23-13 in the fourth quarter. Nikki Kerstein had 15 points, eight rebounds and six steals, and junior forward Olivia Kerndt added 11 points.
But Maine South senior forward Emily Pape, a Cornell recruit and the CSL South player of the year, was too much to handle for the guard-oriented Warriors. Pape finished with 31 points, including 23 in the second half, and 14 rebounds.
“She’s a star, and we knew she would go off and do her thing,” Deerfield coach Nicole Keith said.
But Lexi Kerstein also did her thing, almost carrying Deerfield to its second victory of the season on Maine South’s floor.
“Those three guards are special, but Lexi Kerstein is a tremendous basketball player,” Maine South coach Jeff Hamann said. “All the credit goes to her. They kept coming back.”
Keith said Kerstein has grown as a player over the course of the season.
“Lexi has shown so much fight this season, even in this game,” Keith said. “She wasn’t hitting her shots early in the game, but she’s smart enough now to start going to the rack. That’s what she’s gotten so much better at, learning the game and her position and to rely on the other two guards. She’s realized she doesn’t have to do everything. They can get her open.
“Like when we took that timeout in the fourth quarter, she knew it was ‘go time.’ She started taking over in the huddle, and the leader came out in crunch time.”
Galvan showed off her immense potential, too, scoring five consecutive points midway through the fourth. She credited Kerstein for helping her adjust to her prominent varsity role.
“At times, when I make a mistake, she won’t yell at me,” Galvan said. “She will tell me to come back and give me suggestions to help me.”
Kerstein said she’s cherished playing with her younger sister, calling basketball “the best part of my day because we have a great connection and a great time on the court.”
She’s thrilled to get another chance to build upon Deerfield’s playoff success.
The Warriors, the No. 2 seed in the Class 3A Grayslake Central Sectional, can get ready for the Deerfield Regional semifinal on Monday against the winner of Saturday’s game between Crystal Lake South and North Chicago.
“I’m excited for the playoffs,” Kerstein said. “Hopefully we will continue to get better.”
Bobby Narang is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.