SPIRIT LAKE – In some states, eighth-graders are allowed to participate in high school athletics.
Timberlake High girls basketball coach Matt Miller would have loved a fifth year of eligibility for Cassie Thompson. Especially on the front end.
“I knew she’d have an immediate impact as a freshman,” Miller said. “Even in the eighth grade I wished I could have had her. She would have helped us out as an eighth-grader.”
The 6-foot-1 Thompson proved as much last year as a freshman when she averaged 19 points on 60 percent shooting, 10.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocked shots and 2.8 steals per game. She was an all-Intermountain League selection. She led Timberlake, which opened in 1998, to its best record in school history (7-12 overall).
“I’m sure a lot of teams didn’t expect her to have that big of an impact,” said Miller, who is in his fourth season as head coach.
She set a single-game scoring record (38) last year, and she’s well on her way to establishing marks that probably won’t be touched for years to come.
“She’s a terrific young player,” said North Idaho College women’s coach Chris Carlson, who coached Thompson the past two years in AAU and will do so again this year. “We moved her up to play in the top (high school) division of AAU last summer. Right away it was obvious she belonged there.”
Thompson played with a poise last season that belied her youth. There’s an easy explanation, Miller said.
“She’s played with girls much older than her most of her life,” Miller said. “She didn’t have that freshman stigma. Usually freshmen can be afraid at times. When you think about it she had more game experience than anybody on the team last year – possibly more than the whole team combined. She had tons more game experience, and at a high level too.”
Timberlake is well on its way to having its best season in school history this year. Going into the week, the Tigers were 10-3 overall and leading the IML at 5-0. Timberlake is seeking its first state berth.
Thompson’s scoring average is down this year at 14 per game. But there’s also any easy explanation for that, too. Defenses are certainly more conscious of where she is on the court, but the biggest reason is she’s getting more help from her teammates.
“We have more consistent scoring,” said Thompson, who also plays volleyball and track and is considering playing soccer next fall. “It makes it easier for everyone.”
The rest of her statistics are at the same level as last year. She’s shooting 59 percent from the field, averaging 10.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 3.3 steals per game.
“She has a great basketball IQ,” Miller said. “She’s an unselfish player. She doesn’t force shots and she’s always looking to find an open teammate. She wants the other girls to score because she knows it will make things easier for her overall.”
Miller sees a measurable improvement overall in Thompson this season over last year.
“She’s seeing the court better,” Miller said. “This year she knows where the open player is, especially when she gets collapsed on fast. Her court vision has improved a lot.”
Miller knows the second half of league will be much more difficult than the first half. A tight 41-39 victory over Bonners Ferry is a big reason the Tigers are in first place in what’s shaping up to be a hotly contested state-qualifying district tournament.
“They’ve done a great job, but I hope they’re not satisfied with what they’ve done,” Miller said. “We haven’t done anything yet. District is all that matters. We have to finish the season strong. (Qualifying for state) is definitely in the back of our minds, and I’m trying to push it as far back as possible.”
Miller hopes his team learned something from a pair of games against Newport. The Tigers beat Newport on the road 45-35 in mid-December, then lost to Newport 39-37 on a buzzer-beating shot Jan. 5 at Timberlake.
“I think we overlooked them the second time,” Miller said. “We weren’t as focused before the game as we should have been.”
Although the Tigers’ goal is to qualify for state this year, the overall future is bright. Timberlake will return eight of 10 players next year including four of five starters.
“Next year will be even better than this year,” Thompson said.
Especially with Thompson in the middle of things.