The week after Christmas wasn’t terribly festive for the Olympia High School girls basketball team.
A five-hour trip to the Spokane Valley for a tournament at Central Valley netted the Bears three straight losses, including an 84-13 thrashing at the hands of the host team, winners of last season’s Class 4A state title and Geico National Championship tournament in New York.
But Olympia (4-5), which played without 6-foot-2 Pomona-Pitzer commit Emily Church throughout, didn’t let itself become shell-shocked. The Bears came back to battle a tough Richland team down to the wire in a 56-51 loss the next night, and returned home with new purpose.
“We knew going east of the mountains all three teams we played would be legit,” Olympia coach Jackie Robinson said. “You get a realistic look at your team. A game like that can break you or pull you together. You have to ask, ‘What are we going to do to bridge that gap?’”
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Church, whose sprained ankle suffered against Emerald Ridge last month was a key factor in a four-game skid that followed a 4-1 start for Olympia, saw a new determination when the Bears came back from Spokane.
“That tournament is going to be a good turning point for us,” she said. “Yeah, we got rolled a couple of games. But, we found out how hard we’d been practicing wasn’t enough. Our first two practices since we got back were more focused. We’re moving up a level.”
Church, a second-team 4A SPSL selection in 2018, returned from her injury this week. She brings a unique skill set, Robinson says.
“What college coaches liked about her was her active presence inside,” he said. “She doesn’t always score a lot of points, but her fingerprints are all over our games.
“She’s a good teammate, which doesn’t mean she’s always nicey-nicey. She challenges her teammates, and makes a lot of demands on herself. She’s got an unbelievable work ethic. She’s loyal. She’s coachable.”
He’s also noticed progress in Church’s competitiveness.
“She’s gone from a freshman who was afraid to go into the game to someone who hates to lose more than she loves to win,” Robinson said.
Church credits Robinson and the Olympia assistant coaches with developing her footwork and back-to-the-basket game, but believes she will need to develop more perimeter skills to perhaps play at the small forward or power forward positions at Pomona-Pitzer, a member of the NCAA Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The SCIAC brands itself as the Ivy League of the West. Pomona-Pitzer is an athletic consortium of two of the five Claremont Colleges. A truism around the SCIAC has been that most Sagehen athletes attend Pitzer, more lenient in its admissions standards than Pomona, and alma mater of Hawaii senator Brian Schatz, entertainer Kris Kristofferson and Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer — whose own coach at Pomona-Pitzer was now-San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Church, a 4.0 student, defies the stereotype. She’ll be pre-med at Pomona College.
“It’s just an amazing school,” she said. “I knew right away I wanted to be there. I’ll be pushed academically, I’ll be pushed in basketball.”
But first comes the remainder of a 2018-19 season both Church and Robinson believe will ultimately be a successful one.
“Our team chemistry is great. Every single girl is an amazingly wonderful human being,” Church said. “That hasn’t always been the case with other teams I’ve played on.”
Robinson points to the guard tandem of 5-6 senior Bekah Bradshaw and 5-8 junior Ellie Glock as a key. He compares 5-9 freshman Ava Wolin, one of only two ninth graders on Olympia’s varsity team, with some of the notable local products he coached in previous stops at Timberline and River Ridge at the same age. Lauren McBride, a 6-0 junior, gives the Bears an athletic forward.
Robinson points to tough upcoming matchups with 4A SPSL frontrunners like Bellarmine Prep, Rogers and Curtis as keys.
“If we can get one of those it puts us in position to make a run,” he said. “We need to do a better job defensively. Don’t give up easy baskets, get back in transition, rebound.”