Walton-Verona’s Emma Strunk is one of the Eighth Region’s top players, but basketball is only part of her life.
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
Team leaders are much more than those who are at the top of the stat sheets. But when the package all comes together in one person it makes for something very special.
And it’s one of the reasons people are smiling as the girls’ basketball season gets underway at Walton-Verona High School. The Lady Bearcats have been perennial contenders in the Eighth Region for most of the last decade and are expected to be in the thick of things again when tournament time comes around.
Senior forward Emma Strunk is a big reason why.
No, you won’t see her name pop up on the pre-season all-state teams. She’s not considered one of the candidates for the Eighth Region Player of the Year, although she was ranked among the region’s Top 10 players in The Cats’ Pause Basketball Preview.
Emma just wins, on the court and off. And Coach Mark Clinkenbeard is mighty happy to have his next door neighbor suiting up for one last season of high school basketball.
“She’s a leader and she leads by her faith,” he says. “It’s refreshing.”
In Strunk’s varsity seasons, two as a full-time starter, the Lady Bearcats have compiled a 67-32 record with a 32nd District championship last year. Walton-Verona has taken the last two regional All-A Classic titles, advancing to the state small school championship game last year. When March has rolled around, Walton-Verona has made it to the Eighth Region semifinals the last two seasons.
It’s quite a resume, but Strunk says her team wants more in 2020. “This year, I think we can do anything we want to,” she says. “I think we can beat anyone. If we stay focused, we can win it. We can win it if we stay focused and keep pushing ourselves.”
In The Cats’ Pause, Walton-Verona was ranked third in the region behind yearly contenders Simon Kenton and Anderson County.
A year ago, Walton-Verona captured its first district crown since 2012 when the Lady Bearcats squeaked past host Simon Kenton, the big rival located just over seven miles up the road. “It was kind of a relief,” Strunk smiles. “We had worked so hard in the weight room. Our assistant coach (former Owen County and Northern Kentucky University player Rianna Gayheart) put in this crazy workout to make us stronger. I dreaded those workouts but after we won, we thanked her. We would not have been able to beat them because they are so physical.”
And when the regional pairings were announced, Walton-Verona seemed to have a clear path to the final, with only Gallatin County and Collins, teams the Bearcats had beaten by 27 and 26 points in December, in their way. They rolled past Gallatin again, but ran into a Collins team that had come together late in the season and was playing very well.
Collins hung on for a 63-57 win on its way to a berth in the Sweet 16. The bitter taste stayed with Strunk and her teammates all summer. “We expected to win that game. We had beaten Collins by 30 early in the year,” she remembers. “It wasn’t a rivalry but we thought if we played hard and do our best, we should win.”
It was Collins making the tough shots and getting the loose balls, though.
“Oh, it was awful,” she says of the lingering sting.
It was the second consecutive year the Bearcats had experienced heartbreak in the regional semifinal. In Strunk’s sophomore season, Walton-Verona appeared to be in control against Anderson County, but saw the lead slip away. An unlikely three-pointer in the final 30 seconds might have sealed Walton-Verona’s fate that night.
“We had given everything,” she recalls. “Everything and it was not enough again.”
Clinkenbeard consoled his team in the stunning Collins defeat. “After that kind of loss, he doesn’t try to tear us down anymore,” Emma says of her coach. “He knows we are already beating ourselves up because we wanted to win that game more than anything. He was like, ‘You played hard and did what you can do. Let’s get ready for next year and get in the weight room.’ After that game, he had meetings with us individually and told us what we could do to get ready for next year.”
Next year is here and while Strunk is the top returning scorer (13 ppg) and rebounder (6.7 rpg) in the Bearcat lineup, she says her role is “not just about basketball. I try to be a vocal leader on the floor and know what everyone is doing and help them out, but part of it is holding people accountable if they are out doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”
And that can be where Stunk’s Christian faith comes in, Clinkenbeard says.
“We have a lot of activities we try to do in the community,” he says. “She is very involved in that and throughout the school.”
And Strunk, whose father serves as youth pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Walton, also serves as a spiritual leader on the Lady Bearcats. As is the tradition at Walton-Verona, last year’s seniors chose Strunk to lead her team in prayer before games, but it’s not about coming away with a win. “We pray to build relationships,” she says.
Strunk is being recruited by Asbury University, among others, and plans to pursue a career as a trauma nurse. “I am kind of good in emergency situations,” she says. “I am able to stay calm.”
And while being the daughter of a minister can present some special pressures in the world, Emma says, “It’s good having that background and the church setting. It’s really kind of comforting.”
It’s also comforting to Clinkenbeard knowing that his senior has a strong perspective on life in a world that often overwhelms young people. “Everything is out there,” he says. “You hit the wrong button and you are somewhere you shouldn’t be or you are learning about something you didn’t have the opportunity to 30 years ago or didn’t need to learn about. It’s just how the world is today. There is just so much out there on the internet and on social media. There is pressure on kids today that I didn’t have when I was a kid. Everything is out there. Everything they do and everything they say. They have to be more careful.”
Emma agrees. “It’s very difficult because of social media because of everything everybody posts about you that you didn’t want everyone to know about yourself. It’s kind of crazy how much more pressure is on you because of what you see other people do and it’s a lot to deal with sometimes.”
Clinkenbeard continues,” I think today there is more pressure to be worldly and be accepted. That is tough on teenagers.”
It’s easy to forget that high school sports are more about learning life lessons than wins and losses, even though Walton-Verona has picked up quite a few W’s in Emma Strunk’s career. But she says, “Basketball is about fun and games. It’s about making friends and building relationships for the rest of your life. Sometimes it is about going to college or playing more, but usually it’s more about the things you learn and the relationships you make.”