If the prospect of carrying an undefeated record into the postseason weighs heavily on the minds of the West Valley High School girls basketball team, they hide it well.
West Valley, 20-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state behind undefeated River Ridge, can secure a berth in the Class 2A state tournament tonight at 7 p.m. with a win against visiting Clarkston in the Great Northern League district tournament.
The Eagles went through their typical workouts this past week. As usual, the team practices with both a light heart and a serious work ethic – a two-fer that’s as atypical as this team is talented.
These young Eagles don’t just run the floor; they gambol. They frolic. They laugh. And they have serious game.
That comes as no surprise to those who have watched this team progress. This year’s junior class entered West Valley as perhaps the most eagerly awaited freshman class in school history. They were the kind of incoming class that made people openly speculate over just how good they would become before they graduated.
As freshmen, Shaniqua Nilles and Hannah Love were standout starters on a team featuring a cast of seniors. They led the Eagles to their first state tournament in 11 seasons.
A year ago, the precocious sophomores led the way to a third-place finish in the Class 2A tournament.
“I think we might have snuck up on some people a little last year,” coach Lorin Carlon said. “I don’t think they were expecting us to play the way we did.
“That’s not going to happen this year.”
West Valley goes for win No. 21 and a state tournament berth tonight at 7 p.m. against visiting Clarkston in the Great Northern League district playoffs.
When you win games by an average of 19.5 points through 20 games, you’re not sneaking up on anyone. Only Pullman (twice), Cheney and Colville came within single digits of the Eagles this season. The Greyhounds lost by six at West Valley in January and were within five points last week in Pullman. Cheney came closest, falling by four, 55-51, at West Valley and Colville lost by five in the regular season finale.
“That’s the funny thing about this team,” Carlon laughed. “If you come out and play us hard, when we play teams that are supposed to play us tough, we get right to work and win easily. But against teams we’re supposed to beat easily, it takes us a while to get going.”
Considering the playful nature of his team’s collective personality, it’s a little like a cat that likes to play with a mouse before turning it into a snack.
“That’s exactly what it’s like!” Carlon agreed. “That’s just exactly what it’s like.”
West Valley doesn’t just rely on one class for its success. Senior Nikki Lawless has been a steady hand each of the past two seasons, and Carlon has several promising freshmen adding significant minutes and standout qualities of their own.
“We have some young girls who are going to be playing well once these juniors are gone,” the coach predicted. “We have speed and we have talent.”
Carlon likes his players to play the game. He’s not the kind of coach who installs rigid plays, then demands his players to run them the way they were drawn up.
“I don’t like robots,” he said. “I want my players to understand how to play the game. I want them to recognize what the other team is trying to do and then adapt to it. If they’re trying to take away one part of your game, how do you beat them? If they’re double-teaming one player, they’re leaving someone else wide open – how do you get them the ball?”
Tuesday the Eagles were working on just that.
Former boys head coach Jamie Nilles worked with both Nilles and Love, the team’s two tallest players, on how to beat a double-team in the low post. Both players quickly mastered the techniques.
Nilles signed on as an assistant this season, and he clearly loves coaching his talented daughter.
“I’ve always said that, if you want to be a coach, you need to be a parent, too,” Carlon said. “Obviously that’s not always true, but it makes a big difference in how you deal with kids.”
The team has learned much this season.
“A lot of teams have tried to double team Hannah and Shaq,” Carlon said. “We’re learning how to handle that. Sometimes we just let them spend some time on the outside and force teams to come out and guard them. They may be our two tallest players, but they can both do a lot more than just play down low and they are two of our best outside shooters.
“And we’re learning how to play with each of them. We had to play without one or the other for extended periods at different times this season. We’ve even had to play for extended periods of time without both of them and we did pretty well. We know now that we can do that and still be successful.”
But oh, what those two can do when they are on the floor together.
Nilles and Love have combined to score 691 of the team’s 1,109 total points. Nilles averages 17 points per game while Love scores 17.55. Each has scored a season-high 27 points. Nilles has failed to score in double figures twice this season; Love just once.
Scoring, however, hasn’t been the stat Carlon looks for.
“We’ve been working on assists,” he said. “Early on we were getting only a handful of assists per game. Our last game we had more than 20 assists.
“It’s not that we weren’t passing the ball, but now we’re learning how to make the good pass that leads to a basket. That’s important, especially this time of year.”