By Tom Rohrer
For some, this task is easy and natural. For others, the adversity is too overwhelming.
Despite last season’s success, which included a 4A Narrows League Championship, the Yelm High School girls basketball team has a lingering bitterness stemming from how the season ended.
Heading into the regional 4A state tournament, the Yelm Tornadoes were one game away from playing in the Tacoma Dome. Facing off against Skyline High School, the Tornadoes were unable to overcome some uncharacteristic mistakes and fell to the Spartans 61-48 to end the season.
“It wasn’t how we had played all year,” said Yelm head coach Russ Riches, now in his 18th year leading the Tornadoes. “We were tight and played scared at some points. We didn’t play our normal game.”
“It was tough for sure,” said senior McKailea Tyler. “We didn’t think (the season) would end that soon.”
Now in the early stages of the 2013-14 campaign, Riches and his players are trying to continue last season’s regular season success and develop their chemistry heading into Narrows League play. Currently standing at 4-4 with wins over Timberline, North Thurston, Eatonville and Tumwater High School, the Tornadoes are looking for contributors from a season ago to fill the void left by those now graduated.
Last season, Yelm relied on the scoring off-the bench provided by Tyler, earning her a spot on the All-Narrows League second team.
In the Tornado’s biggest win during the regular season over Bellarmine Prep, Tyler came off the bench to score 26 points. This season, Tyler has been expected to shoulder more of the scoring and leadership roles left by 2012-13 first team Narrows League performers Anushka Maldonando and Karli Shaw.
“It’s an adjustment but I was in that role offensively last year. I know I’ll be keyed on sometimes and that’s kind of a fun challenge,” said Tyler, one of two team captains. “Leadership wise, I like having this role of motivating people. It’s a big step but I don’t mind taking it on.”
Riches, who referred to Tyler as his sixth starter on last year’s squad, has been impressed with the development of his returning standout.
“She will be one of our go to players for sure and the thing is, she is ready for that,” said Riches. “The girls from last year, they showed her what it takes to make that next step. She had the perfect blueprint for that development.”
Along with Tyler, the Tornadoes will also rely heavily on senior Kelsey Allwine, both on the floor and off. On a team absent of a player taller than six feet, Allwine will likely end up as the team’s leading rebounder.
“She’s 5’8″ and plays like she is 6’4″,” said Riches. “Her tenacity, her drive, it rubs off on the girls. And that needs to happen.”
Given Allwine’s selfless attitude, her influence on the rest of the team can only be a positive thing.
“We were lucky to be shown the way by the older girls in the past,” said Allwine, the team’s other co-captain. “We want to win, be successful this year, but it’s just as important that we as leaders set a good example for the younger girls. We’re paying it forward.”
Without the size that made Yelm a match-up nightmare for opponents last season, Riches hopes to speed up the game and spread the floor offensively.
Defensively, full-court, man-to-man press will be the norm for the Tornadoes.
“Part of being a coach is teaching a new group and that’s what makes it fun – and challenging,” said Riches. “But we scored (67 points in a 72-67 loss to Olympia), so scoring hasn’t been an issue yet.”
Along with the senior duo, Yelm has received significant contributions from sophomore Jodi Blomhdal and junior Leslee Maldonado, the younger sister of Anushka.
“I think the juniors are coming along, but this is a veteran team in terms of age and class. We have experience,” said Riches. “They know what we’re trying to do here and what the expectations are for the coaches and players.”
To fulfil the goals and expectations that were cut short a year ago, Yelm must move forward confidently as the season moves on. However, old feelings can be hard to disperse.
“We’ve had to move on from (the loss to Skyline) but it’s something that pushes us too,” added Allwine. “We want to use it as motivation.”
Dusted off and starting anew, the Yelm girls basketball team has done what they needed to do after falling down: They have stood back up.