December 11, 2010 in Washington Voices

Titans get younger

U-Hi girls basketball team has only one returning senior
Steve Christilaw

Team leader and wing Amy Thornton, left, is the only returning senior on this year’s U-Hi girls basketball team.
(Full-size photo)

Mark Stinson and his University High School Titans have accomplished something only Captain Kirk and Superman were able to do in the movies: they’ve turned back time.

“We were a pretty young team last year,” the girls basketball coach said. “This year we got younger.”

No, the team picture doesn’t include Dorian Gray, and no, the team manager hasn’t been inhabited by Dr. Sam Beckett, with help from a hologram named Al.

This year’s Titan squad has but one senior, 5-foot-9 wing Amy Thornton. Seven freshmen and sophomores from a year ago return a year older, but Stinson added three freshmen, including starter Cassie Shillam, a 5-foot-8 guard who tossed in 11 points in her Greater Spokane League debut, a 61-49 victory at Mead and scored 22 points in a 71-63 loss to Lake City.

“This is a pretty strong freshman class,” the coach said. “I have a couple more freshmen who will play on our junior varsity and we have a pretty big freshman team as well.

“For these freshmen and sophomores, basketball is a real big deal. They’ve spent a lot of time working on their skills.”

That means investing time and energy playing club basketball and joining the school team for summer league.

“These days I think you have to do that if you’re going to be successful,” Stinson said. “Playing summer ball together is important, too. But you don’t always have everyone for it. All the girls participate, sure, but you’re always missing a girl here or a girl there. You rarely have them all together at the same time.”

A year ago U-Hi was 5-10 in the GSL, 7-14 overall. For a young team just learning how to play in the state’s premier Class 4A league, it was a good start.

“That’s the trade-off you make when you have a young team,” Stinson said. “You go with a group of young players, you take your lumps in hopes of being older and more experienced later on. Eventually you turn into an old team.”

Through the first three games, the yet-younger Titans were 2-1, splitting a pair of non-league games against Idaho teams before earning a satisfying win at Mead.

“Mead was a great win,” Stinson said. “They have a great program and outstanding athletes. You don’t expect to go in there with a young team and win, but we played a consistent game and played good defense.

“It’s just fun to see how hard they competed. Sometimes you have to teach that. It’s really hard to make somebody compete, you either have it or not. It’s hard for young players to understand how hard they have to compete.”

Stinson was impressed by what he saw from his young squad.

“Our stamina was pretty good,” he said. “We played a really physical, intense game. The first part of the season always is like that. Your offense isn’t falling for you and you’re trying to play defense. You’re trying to survive. Our composure was better than it should be at this point. (Junior guard) Lexi Clark did a nice job – she came in and did a nice job, especially playing defense.”

It was the kind of game where Stinson’s lone senior made a big difference.

Thornton kept her teammates focused and together, all while keeping her own game sharp. She did what you expect from a team leader.

A three-sport athlete, Thornton embraced her role with enthusiasm.

“Amy is one of the top leaders we’ve ever had here,” the coach praised. “One of the best I’ve had in my whole life – she’s special. It’s because she sees the big picture and I think that’s hard for any teenager to do. She sees outside herself, she sees the team as a whole and she makes sure the young kids know what’s going on.

“The incredible thing about her is that basketball is not her No. 1 sport and it’s probably the one that doesn’t come easy for her. She’s an outstanding soccer player and she’s a great track athlete, too. Basketball is such a technical sport, and for her to excel and to assume such a strong leadership role is a testament to her to her athleticism and her intellect.”

Thornton is the one who makes sure players and coaches all stay on the same page. She reminds her teammates of what they need to do each and every day and often reminds coaches of things they’ve forgotten to do as well.

“She does the little things that coaches forget about,” Stinson said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for coaches to know what to do with each player. Amy is our go-between and she makes sure everyone knows and understands what’s going on.”

The pieces are there, Stinson said.

Point guard Kayleigh Valley, a sophomore, has grasped her role and is making great strides. At 5-11, she’s the tallest point guard in the league and her coach calls her “one of the smartest we’ve had.”

“We’ve got a little height to work with, but we’re far from the tallest team in the league,” Stinson said. “Lewis and Clark has the corner on that market.

“We have things we can work on. Right now we’re working to make sure we’re all facing the right basket all the time. But already you can tell that these kids understand how fast the game is at this level. They’re not perfect by any means, but they are getting better.”

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