Basketball preview: River Ridge loaded again, maybe better than ever

High Schools: Strong cast of Hawks seniors has one goal in mind – to be best of the best

December 10, 2010 

LACEY - When Kelsey Russell sits back and watches film of the 2008 Class 2A state title game, it still gives her chills.

That year, River Ridge won its second straight state championship, and since then, the Hawks have added one more – defeating Prosser, 57-46, in the final last March. Russell, along with fellow seniors Jasmine McDonald and Jennifer Cole, have won state tournaments as freshmen and juniors. And now, they’re hoping to cap off their high school careers by adding one more state title to the trophy case at River Ridge High School.

“It makes me smile all the time,” Russell said. “I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve been given.”

River Ridge’s remarkable win-loss total, eye-popping style of play, and big runs at the state tournament have helped it become a dynasty in Washington girls basketball.

Under the guidance of coach Tom Kelly, the Hawks earned their seventh consecutive trip to state last season, and won their third state title in four years. In addition, River Ridge finished second at state in 2005 and has claimed five district titles in that span.

It’s been a major turnaround for a program that was 0-20 in 2001-02 and endured a 38-game losing streak that stretched over three seasons.

Kelly, now in his second year as the Hawks’ coach, couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead as the team returns four starters in Russell, Cole and sisters Samira and Jasmine McDonald from last season’s 26-1 team that averaged a state-best 73.7 points per game. Samira McDonald, a first-team all-state selection, led a balanced offense with 12.5 points per game.

“We can get better, a lot better,” Kelly said. “Our defense, and the running game, has gotten a lot better.”

Expect the same uptempo style and in-your-face defense that’s been a staple the past few years. Kelly noted his team operated at about 70 percent of the tempo he would’ve liked during last season’s state-title run, but is already up to 80-85 percent.

“The transition game is already better,” Kelly said, “... It will be a fun year.”

One big question mark for the team is when – or if – the 6-foot Cole will return. She and freshman Rebecca Stevenson are the Hawks’ tallest players, but Cole hasn’t been cleared to play after injuring her back during last month’s state volleyball tournament. She averaged just under 8 points per game last season and was voted the 2A state tournament MVP.

In the team’s 90-60 season-opening win over Olympia, all five River Ridge starters scored in double figures, led by Kyahri Adams’ 19 points. Adams and Necy Wade have moved into the more guard-oriented starting lineup after coming off the bench last season.

“They’re doing great,” Jasmine McDonald said. “They’re keeping our speed up.”

“Kyarhi’s offense and shot is so much better, and so is Necy’s,” Russell said. “They’re perfect to step in this year.”

Russell has verbally committed to play basketball at Central Washington University, where she’ll be reunited with her older sister, Sophie, currently a junior on the Wildcats’ women’s basketball team. They were part of the Hawks’ 2008 state title team.

Over the summer, the returning varsity players played select basketball for Columbia Cascades, Columbia Reign and Cloud Nine, traveling to tournaments regionally and nationally. Kelly saw big improvement in his players when he saw them again during the fall league, and hopes that success transfers over.

“The competition they played against is so much better,” Kelly said. “We’ll be looking for big things from the seniors this year. Maybe this year’s team could be the best (of previous state-title teams).”

Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 mwochnick@theolympian.com

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