Perfection and Yelm High School athletics have gone hand-in-hand this year. After the Tornados’ football and fastpitch programs posted undefeated seasons, Yelm’s girls’ basketball team continued the trend following a convincing 70-44 victory over River Ridge in its season finale, which pushed the team’s record to a spotless 14-0.
“It was super important to win a league title and go undefeated this year,” said Bayleigh Harder, one of four senior captains on Yelm’s roster. “It was all for Riches. Over the last four years the seniors have gotten so close with him. He’s an amazing coach. It’s sad to see him go, but this is a great way for it to end.”
Yelm was not an easy place to win when Riches took over the girls’ basketball program for a second time in 1999.
The Tornados limped to a 1-19 record in his first season back at the helm. The following year the team went 3-17.
“When I came back, I asked them to give me time to build the program the way it needed to be built,” said Riches, who coached the Tornados between 1992 and 1995 during his first go-around. “My two goals coming back were: I wanted to leave the program in better shape than when I got it and secondly, I wanted the people that leave our program to be better people than when they came in. That’s been my goal all along. And if basketball success follows, great.”
It’s safe to say Riches accomplished both goals, while also leading the Tornados to plenty of on-the-court success.
After winning a combined four games between 1999 and 2001, Riches guided Yelm to a 9-11 mark in 2002, earning Pac 9 League Coach of the Year. Under his watch, the Tornados ended an 18-year state playoff drought in 2009 when they secured a berth in the Class 3A tournament. The team made a return trip to state the following season and have missed the postseason just once over the last 14 years.
“People come and go, they always look for greener pastures, but you don’t build relationships that way and I am thoroughly fulfilled with what we’ve done here,” said Riches, who led Yelm to five league championships. “It’s been great. I can’t say enough about the kids we’ve been able to work with. They have just been awesome kids. This year’s seniors, all four of them, have been here forever. It’s just been great to watch them grow up and develop into players. It’s been amazing.”
The Tornados, who won their 14 games by an average margin of 28.9 points, flexed their muscle from the opening tipoff, besting North Thurston, 71-27, in their season opener. It marked the first of 12 games this year Yelm posted a win by 20 or more points. The other two victories included a 19-point win over Spanaway Lake in a non-conference clash and an 8-point triumph over Timberline in the squad’s only game where they failed to win by double digits.
Joining Harder on the team were fellow seniors My’kel Jones, Samantha Rohwedder and Lenna Miskimens.
Harder, a 6-foot post, appeared in 82 games during her high school career. She averaged 14.1 points and a team-best 10.6 rebounds per game as a senior, recording a double-double in half of the Tornados’ games. She also tallied 2.6 blocks and 2.1 assists a contest.
Jones paced the team in scoring this season, averaging 14.6 a game, while Rohwedder added 8.3 points and 7.9 rebounds a game.
“We call ourselves the Fab Four,” said Harder, who scored 12 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in Yelm’s season-ending win over River Ridge. “We’ve been playing together since elementary school and for us to end it undefeated as seniors is just awesome. We wanted to go out on a bang.”
Yelm’s roster this year also featured two juniors in Jaelynn Carrier and Morgan Whited and three freshmen in Henlee Sherman, Sadie Tanner and Lilli Williams, who was third on the team in scoring at 9 points a game and led the team in assists at 3.1 an outing.
“We had a lot of young players on our team this year, but they’re the best young players I’ve seen in the league,” Harder said. ““It’s going to be a new chapter next year, but it’s definitely going to keep going.”