The reasons would have been plentiful. They’re too young. It’s the first year of a new system. They played a challenging non-conference schedule.
The Tumwater High School girls basketball program would have had no shortage of excuses had the Thunderbirds got off to a slow start this season.
Tops on that list would be the abundance of first-year players Tumwater’s roster features this year as four freshmen not only suit up for the varsity squad, but start for the T-Birds.
Another thing not to be overlooked was the fact Tumwater opened the new season under first-year coach Robin Johnson. A learning curve should be expected.
And if that weren’t enough, the team could always chalk things up to an early season slate which was loaded with tough competition, including four teams from the 3A South Sound Conference.
Yes, excuses were readily available.
The only thing is – they didn’t need to use any of them.
Despite all the perceived obstacles, the T-Birds have been nothing short of spectacular this season. Leading one to wonder if this is the beginning of what could turn out to be a historic run for the program.
Johnson, who previously coached five seasons at Black Hills, inherited a Tumwater team that went 4-15 last year.
But when Johnson arrived, she hardly rode into town alone. She was flanked by a foursome of gifted freshmen in Cassie Kaufman, Isabella Lund, Natalie Sumrok, and Aubrey Amendala, Johnson’s daughter who serves as the team’s starting point guard.
“Everyone always thinks because we have so many freshmen we aren’t going to be very good,” Amendala said, “but we’ve shocked a lot of teams.”
Dismantled a lot of teams is more like it.
The freshmen quartet, complimented by a trio of seniors, have helped the T-Birds get off to their best start in years with Tumwater completing its non-conference schedule an impressive 9-1 – tops among any team in the 2A Evergreen Conference.
The T-Birds have knocked off five 3A teams this year, all by double digits. They hold wins over North Thurston (53-42), Timberline (58-45), Yelm (64-37), Bonney Lake (45-25), and Capital (68-52) and appear ready to challenge W.F. West, which has had a stranglehold on the conference for years.
The team’s efforts have hardly gone unnoticed. The WIAA’s RPI ranking currently has them sitting third in the standings, trailing only East Valley of Spokane and Lynden, two teams that each placed at the state tournament last year.
“Ideally, a coach doesn’t want to put in a bunch of freshmen out there in a varsity setting,” Johnson said, “but for us it was just a good fit and they had to step up.”
Which they did immediately.
In Tumwater’s season-opening 72-34 drubbing of Ridgefield, the T-Bird freshmen combined to score 51 points with Lund leading the way with a game-high 21.
“It was a little overwhelming at first,” said Sumrok about the group initially making the transition to varsity basketball, “but we were told to just go out there and do our best and work hard, and everything would take care of itself. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
While they hold frosh status in the program, it is anything but a green group of players.
“I’ve coached most of them since about third or fourth grade,” Johnson said. “They’ve played together a long time. So they are very used to each other.”
Never was that more on display than in Tumwater’s win over Capital as the team simply blitzed the Cougars and opened the contest on a quick 8-0 run, leading to the triumph.
It’s been like that the entire season so far for the T-Birds, who have completely embraced and excelled at Johnson’s aggressive, fast-paced style of play.
“We’re just in sync with each other,” Sumrok said. “We’ve grown a bond over the years that a lot of teams don’t have and it’s really helped us this year.”
It’s a bond, however, that Sumrok and her classmates believe has also been formed with the seniors on the team, which include Courtney Borovec, Katie Cunningham, and Sophia Koelsch, who was a second-team all-conference pick last year.
“We are so thankful for our seniors,” Johnson said. “They have absolutely bought into the season and they have led us the entire way. I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids. The blend of seniors and freshmen on this team has been great.”
“I didn’t necessarily anticipate coaching high school again,” said Johnson, who last coached at Black Hills during the 2011-2012 season, “but when the opportunity came up (Tumwater athletic director) Tim (Graham) and I had a conversation about it. I wanted to make sure it was a good fit for the kids and good fit for the school and the future of Tumwater basketball. After talking to him we decided it was, and now I’ve really been working on building the program and getting Tumwater back on track.”