Not long ago, Tumwater High School was a girls basketball power. The T-Birds reached the Class 3A or 2A state tournament six times in a seven-year span from 2005 through 2011.
Then, a drought set in.
Tumwater finished fourth at state in 2011, but the program hasn’t returned to the tournament since, and the T-Birds have posted just two winning seasons.
Even last year, the first under coach Robin Johnson — who served eight highly successful years at Black Hills before founding the 90TEN Training Academy’s AAU program — Tumwater struggled to a 4-15 record, including 10 double-digit losses.
Now, the darker days appear to be over.
Tumwater is off to an 8-1 start heading into a week-long break. The T-Birds resume play on Saturday, Dec. 29, at home against Capital.
The biggest difference? An influx of five freshmen, three of whom start alongside seniors Sophia Koelsch and Katie Cunningham.
“Our five freshmen have played together since third or fourth grade,” Johnson said. “They’re dynamic and they read each other well. They’ve played on big stages their whole youth. They’ve been looking forward to getting to high school.”
All of the freshman — starters Natalie Sumrok, Aubrey Amendala and Isabella Lund, and back-ups Cassie Kaufmann and Lily McCauley — came up playing for 90TEN. They helped win two of the last three Washington state AAU middle school championships, and claimed national AAU titles in Las Vegas. Junior Olivia Bailon is also a 90TEN veteran.
“They’re great to play with. They’re super experienced players. They’ve been in high pressure situations,” said Koelsch, whose scoring average has dropped from 12.4 points per game as a junior to 5.7, but who also contributes five rebounds and two assists per game.
“Last year we didn’t have much depth, this year we have more scorers. My focus has changed from just getting buckets to making sure the play gets started and our other scorers get a good look at the hoop.”
Johnson acknowledges the role her freshmen are playing and points to more than 100 younger girls participating in the T-Birds’ youth program as another sign that the future is bright. But, she says the current team wouldn’t be off to its fast start without its veterans.
“Katie, Courtney (Borovec) and Sophia are our leaders. Their buy-in makes this work,” she said. “We’re nine deep. Every day is a battle to see who’s going to start. It’s really nice to have all nine players buy into the team concept.”
The T-Birds’ turnaround may appear abrupt, but the preparation has been going on for six-plus years. Amendala, Johnson’s daughter, has played for her mom since second grade, while the other freshman began appearing at 90TEN’s gym in third or fourth grade.
“We’ve had a bond for so long and we’ve brought it into high school,” Amedala said. “It’s really cool. ... We bonded with the junior and seniors, and have been doing really well straight off the bat.”
Amendala leads the team in assists (5.6) and is second in scoring (12.9 points). Lund is an all-around contributor at 8.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, but perhaps the biggest eventual threat to former University of Washington star LeAnn Sheets’ career scoring record at Tumwater is the 5-foot-10 Sumrok, who runs the floor, hits 3-pointers and is averaging 13.4 points per game.
“Growing up around this community, watching the games in elementary and middle school, I’ve been looking forward to playing in high school,” Sumrok said. “My family went to Tumwater, my older sister Taylor played her freshman year.”
Amendala was a child when her mom coached Black Hills, but caught the bug watching the Wolves battle strong Tumwater and Elma teams on their way to several state appearances.
“Since my mom coached when I was really young, I’ve looked forward to this a lot. It’s been really exciting,” she said.
Sumrok and Amendala, used to AAU ball, have had to adjust to tighter foul calls and longer, stop-clock games. Their goals are clear, though.
“It’s important for us to help the seniors get to state and reach their potential,” Sumrok said.
“I want to make it to state this year, maybe win a couple of games, then, by the time we’re seniors, win state,” Amendala said.
From what she’s seen so far, Koelsch, who hasn’t been to state in basketball, but has as a member of Tumwater’s volleyball program, doesn’t doubt the T-Birds’ future.
“Oh, man,” she said when asked what the potential for her young teammates can be. “If this is the bottom and we have more room to grow, they’re going to do great things.”