Erika Brumfield grew up watching W.F. West High School go big in girls basketball.
The Bearcats went to the Class 2A state tournament five straight years, winning the 2014 championship, behind towering college-bound posts: 6-foot-3 Jamika Parker (Western Washington/Centralia CC), 6-3 Nike McClure (Washington State), 6-2 Julie Spencer (University of Portland) and 6-4 Tiana Parker (Tennessee State/West Texas A&M). Lexie Strasser, who now plays softball at Central Washington, contributed to the run at 6-2.
By the time the 6-3 Brumfield arrived as a freshman two years ago, there was a new coach and a decidedly new approach. Tom Kelly, a veteran who won a state title at River Ridge in 2010, turned the Bearcats loose. They run and have the green light to fire threes offensively, get in opponents’ faces with aggressive zone presses on defense.
Despite her height, Brumfield finds herself facing up to drive, shooting mid-range jumpers, even 3-pointers.
“She’s not a back-to-the-basket person, she’s better at driving, slashing,” said Kelly.
“I never shot threes before, but Tom said I can, so I’m working on it,” said Brumfield, along with senior team mate Julia Johnson a member of last season’s Olympian all-area team.
Kelly coached many of his current varsity players down the street in the Pacific Athletic Center’s AAU program before landing the Bearcats’ job. He feels W.F. West is nearing a peak after last season’s third-place finish at state.
“The first year I was here there weren’t a lot of ‘my’ players, but the eighth graders I coached at the PAC are now juniors. They know how we play and we play one way,” said Kelly, who earlier coached at White Pass and Centralia as well as River Ridge. “The program is solid.”
Those players enjoy that one way to play, repeatedly using the phrase “run the ball” to describe it.
“I wouldn’t want to play any other way,” said point guard Kiara Steen, Kelly’s granddaughter, who grew up watching his teams play. “It’s fun. It makes games so enjoyable.”
Johnson, whose aunt Robin Johnson is the head coach at Tumwater and operates the 90TEN club program, says the fun continues even when she’s off the floor.
“You do your part, and get subbed out,” she said. “Then you get into it watching your teammates. It’s fun to be on the bench cheering everyone on.”
The style of play is something the Bearcats are perfecting through year-round development. With gyms available at the high school, middle school and PAC, there’s always a basket to shoot at in Chehalis. Four of the five current starters – all but Johnson – also played for the Pacific Xpress AAU program’s Elite team in tournaments as far away as San Diego and Anaheim over the summer.
Kelly’s son, Sean, coaches the Elite squad, leading to an added bonus come high school season.
“They run exactly the same things we do,” Tom Kelly said. “Plus they’re facing all that good talent, taken out of their comfort zone and pushed to get better.”
“That’s where the good chemistry we have comes from,” said Steen. “We spend so many hours together in the gym in the summer, everybody’s on the same page. We know where each other are going to be.”
Playing tough teams with their AAU squad isn’t the only time the Bearcats meet strong competition. W.F. West (5-1) has wins over 4A Skyview and 3A North Thurston. Its only loss was a 57-53 squeaker to 4A Camas. They’ll meet traditional Seattle power Garfield in the Anacortes tournament next week and travel to Prairie on Jan. 6.
“It makes us better to play the bigger schools,” said Brumfield. “We get a chip on our shoulders, knowing we have to work harder to beat them.”
Added Johnson, “It gets us ready for the competition and pressure of playing the better teams at state.”
Although W.F. West lists just nine players on its varsity roster, all see significant playing time and Kelly rotates a group of swing players up from JV to get the occasional quarter of varsity action.
“Our team is so deep,” said Brumfield, who is drawing interest from NCAA Division I teams and has visited Boise State. “We take the starters out and put the subs in but, oh my word, it’s the same, everybody runs the ball and we’re all in sync.”
“Our freshman class has some of the quickest people you’ll ever see on defense. It’s unbelievable,” said Kelly.
The depth doesn’t stop with varsity and JV. Chehalis-area travel teams all the way down to the sixth grade are finding success with Kelly’s style of play. An eighth grade PAC team has recent tournament wins in Portland and Mount Si.
“They play like we play,” said Kelly. “There are one or two people coming in next year who could start on varsity right away.”
With both Black Hills, which claimed a trophy at state the last two seasons, and Centralia, this season’s 2A Evergreen season could provide some challenges. There’s also Jan. 16 when the Bearcats will travel to Tumwater and Julia Johnson will play against Robin Johnson’s Thunderbirds for the first time.
“I’m definitely going to mess with her,” Julia said, laughing. “She’ll definitely talk smack to me.”