The future is now for the Elma High School girls basketball team. And the next year… and maybe the year after that.
Coming off their first state regional appearance in six years, the Eagles went into this season with a roster of seven sophomores and three juniors. All that youth served up 14 consecutive wins, including four over bigger Washington schools and a three-game sweep of the Seaside Holiday Classic in Oregon.
A recent loss at rival Montesano – the Bulldogs 50th consecutive league victory at home – still leaves Elma with a 15-1 overall mark, heading into Friday night’s Class1A Evergreen Conference home game with Forks. The Eagles believe their success is sustainable.
“We’ve clicked so well, so quickly that next year is going to be crazy,” said junior forward Brooke Sutherby. “We’re already accomplishing so much. Having two years together with the same exact team is something that doesn’t come around often.”
Especially not a team that can combine size – four six-footers, including Sutherby, sophomore Quin Mikel, junior Molly Johnston and 6-2 leading scorer and shot blocker Jalyn Sackrider – with the speed to play coach Lisa Johnson’s usual brand of pressing and running basketball.
“With other teams, if you had size you might want to slow it down and go half court, but we’re also athletic and fast,” Johnson said. “That fits right into the style we’ve always been most successful playing.”
The versatile Johnston epitomizes the Eagles’ mobile bigs, averaging 8.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while also roaming the press in search of steals. Sackrider, a sophomore, is good for 12.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per game. Mikel, also a sophomore, is Elma’s second-leading scorer at 9.8 points and grabs 6.6 rebounds per game.
“On any given night we can have a different leading scorer. We’ll have a few girls with eight or 10 points and everyone on the entire roster scoring,” Johnson said.
Her players credit long friendships for their interchangeability.
“We’re all puzzle pieces. We can all do several different things,” said sophomore point guard Kayli Johnson, averaging 5.7 points and team highs in assists (3.6) and 3-pointers (24 made on 35.3 percent shooting). “If one of us gets taken out it doesn’t matter, because our team is so close. We trust each other in any situation.”
“We have a bond a lot of teams don’t have,” adds Mikel.
Most of the Eagles have played together on an AAU team representing their hometown since as far back as third grade. They ran into a reality check last February when Zillah brushed aside 16th-seeded Elma, 79-38, in the first round of the state tournament.
“We were prepared, but we weren’t expecting that level of play,” Mikel recalled. “We knew they’d be good, we knew the game would be physical, but it still kind of shocked us. This year we know the physicality, how hard it’s going to be and how hard we have to work.”
Coach Johnson thought ahead to the practical matter of the WIAA’s Rating Power Index and how it would affect Elma’s chances to advance past the first round this season.
“We had to find a way to win all our (non-league) games to keep that ranking up and give ourselves a better chance to go farther. Coming in as No. 16 last year wasn’t good,” she said.
The Eagles beat 2A schools Aberdeen, Centralia, Tumwater and Fife, then won their first three 1A EvCo games before that doubly painful 45-37 loss to Montesano (11-4, 4-0).
“That one hurt a lot, not only losing the zero, but losing it to our league rival,” Lisa Johnson said. “We did not shoot the ball well that night (27 percent) and had 22 turnovers, which is completely uncharacteristic of us. We couldn’t make a layup and we couldn’t make a 3-pointer. It was definitely tough.”
Sutherby thinks Elma focused on the wrong thing.
“We went into it thinking of it too much as a rival game versus any other game, which is how we should have treated it. We let the rivalry get into our heads,” she said.
Like the playoff defeat to Zillah, the Eagles see the Montesano loss as something they can bounce back from.
“The only thing that can stop us is over-thinking. We have to play our game and not get in our own heads,” Kayli Johnson said.
“Our girls need to realize they’re now the ones with the target on their back, not vice versa – they need to step on the court with confidence,” said Lisa Johnson.
“We have the skill level, but we need to stay disciplined. We’ve been having strong practices and staying on top of them. When we push them, they’ll rise to the occasion. They want it as much as anybody.”
Asked how far they thought they could advance in the postseason, either this season or in the future, Elma’s players wouldn’t name a specific trophy they believed they could win. Finally Mikel, smiling, offered a general prediction:
“I think we can bring home some hardware.”