Legendary basketball coach John Wooden never used to admit to having a favorite among his myriad national championship college teams at UCLA, but he would occasionally admit to having a soft spot for just one: the team without.
That would be his 1969-’70 national championship team. His first team without Lew Alcindor, who that season became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Milwaukee Bucks.
West Valley High School girls basketball coach Loren Carlon understands the feeling.
“I can see that,” he admits. “In fact, I understand that feeling pretty well.”
Carlon and his Eagles are in their first season without the most successful class of players in West Valley girls sports history, a class that included Shaniqua Nilles, now at Gonzaga University, and Hannah Love, now at North Idaho College. Both were four-year starters for the Eagles.
Add it up and the Eagles graduated almost 50 points per game from a year ago.
This year’s team, West Valley’s team without, is young. And, as in years past, the Eagles have plenty of athletic ability in the form of multiple-sport athletes.
“I love three-sport athletes,” Carlon said. “I love to see girls play different sports. This year we have a couple volleyball players, some soccer players, a couple cross-country kids. We just don’t have a lot of experience playing basketball together.”
Or playing on the WV varsity.
“We only have one player who has varsity experience, Aaliyah Ashley-Meek,” he explained. “But I thought coming into the season that by the middle of the year we could be pretty good and I think we’re still on track for that. I hope we are.”
Ashley-Meek finished the holiday tournament at Freeman with back-to-back games scoring in double figures, her first of the season.
“I think Aaliyah and Jenae Martin (both juniors) are beginning to step up and be the team leaders we need,” he said. “That’s what we need them to do.”
With three wins in seven games, the Eagles are still searching for a team personality.
“That’s exactly where we are,” assistant coach Renae Nilles said. “We haven’t had to do that the past few years because we had so many players who were already good leaders and who had been playing together since the second grade.
“The past few years we had Shaq and Hannah, who would just go after each other every day in practice and they just hammered on each other. They didn’t care about hurting each other’s feelings because they both knew it was just basketball. When practice ended, they were still friends.”
That’s the part this year’s West Valley team has yet to figure out, she said.
“I think we’re still at the place where the girls are afraid to say something harsh because they don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings,” Nilles explained. “They have to get to the place where they know it’s just about basketball and that they can pick up friendships and relationships when practice is over.”
The same principle applies to coaching styles, she said.
“In a lot of ways, we’re starting over from scratch. We’ve had to rethink the way we talk to the players,” Nilles said. “Things that we could say last year we can’t say this year. And we have to remember that this team doesn’t have the depth of experience we’ve had. That makes a difference.”
Meanwhile, Carlon said, the team still has to figure out something they’re good at – an integral part of Carlon’s team equation.
“The last few years we played some really good defense because we weren’t good enough to go out and score a bunch of points on any given nights,” he said. “And you never saw teams come out and hit a lot of threes against us because we defended the three pretty well. This year, we’re not doing that because teams are making threes on us.
“We’re still trying to figure out what we’re good at. Tuesday we played a whole game of man defense. (Wednesday) we played all zone and I think we’re a better zone team.
“Once we find something we’re good at, we can build around it.”
Freshman Natalie Noble will be a key part of the rotation, Carlon said.
“She can be a real contributor, but she’s been injured,” he said. “We’re hoping to get her back by Tuesday, when we play Clarkston to open the (Great Northern) league. I think not having had her has hurt us a little. We’re at the place where we can play two and a half quarters well, and then we start to fade a little. We’re getting a little tired and having one more player in the rotation will help.”