As far as Korina Baker is concerned, playing basketball at North Idaho College is not much different from her days at tiny Freeman High.
“Freeman is small and the NIC campus is little,” she said. “It’s like I really have not left (high school).”
Besides, the Valleyford athlete has something in common at both schools. She helped the Scotties to three Washington Class 1A state places, including the state title in 2010. A year later she wound up a major part of the Cardinals NJCAA national junior college championship, taking over after the original starting point guard suffered a groin injury just before the postseason.
Coach Chris Carlson said Baker’s play was a revelation and calls her this season’s impact player on a team filled with newcomers.
“What she gave us was her strength with the ball,” Carlson said. “She is a ball handler, sees the floor, can beat pressure and break down defenses. She did not have to score for us.”
This year will be different. With 11 freshmen, Baker, one of just two sophomores on the team, will be asked to score more.
“I’m a lot stronger and have seen my playing style change,” she said. “I will penetrate and be aggressive.”
But can this young outfit duplicate last year’s title? Carlson admits the Cardinal women’s basketball bar has been set high.
“As far as repeating, I don’t know,” Carlson said. “I think we’ve loaded up pretty good and will have a good solid team. Hopefully we can do it again.”
NIC has an international presence and size in its newcomers. Ashleigh Kelman-Poto, a 6-foot New Zealander, was originally ticketed for the University of Idaho. Sophomore Julia Salmino, 6-1 from Finland, backed up All-American Tugce Canitez last year. The Cardinals are deep at the wing position, including Aimee Durbridge from Australia.
Joining them is Danika Johnson, 6-3 freshman from Kalispell, who didn’t play as a high school senior due to a shoulder injury.
Leading them is seasoned veteran Baker, who went from role player to starter on the national stage and is now getting looks from four-year Divison I colleges.
In some ways, succeeding at the national level might be easier than competing in the Scenic West Conference and Region 18. The last four years the region champion has finished third or higher nationally, two of them champions.
Under Cardinals coach Jared Phay, NIC has won or shared three league championships and had 27-win seasons in 2009 and 10. But it hasn’t gotten to nationals.
“It’s nice we’re close and right there,” Phay said. “At the same time it’s frustrating. We want to get over the hump.”
This year’s NIC men’s team has a lot of new players. Connor White and Petar Joksimovic came off the bench last year. Jordan McCloud is a redshirt returnee. The Cardinals have size, including 7-foot Kai Sherman from Mercer Island. Point guard Antoine Hosley comes by way of the University of Washington.
“I like them,” said Phay. “We are very athletic. We’ll be right there again.”
Twenty-win seasons have been the norm for CCS coach Bruce Johnson. He’s won more than 450 games in 23 years because of his ability top adapt.
“I’m not a systems guy,” Johnson said. “I take whatever we get and try to figure out and mold them into something they can do. I think we’ve been successful at that.”
This year a 6-foot-5 player with Division I potential left the team after a day, leaving the Sasquatch, quite literally, short. It changed what Johnson planned to do. This guard-oriented team must press and run.
Two of six returnees were starters. His best wing, Coeur d’Alene’s Amanda Buttrey, average nine points a game. Freshmen, all locals, will fill most other positions and Joni Nagy is expected to join them when volleyball season ends.
“They have good speed and can shoot it,” said Johnson. “If a 6-1 girl walked in, I’d be a happy guy.”
So close, yet so far away, the Sasquatch lost in the NWAACC semifinals last year and wound up third in the tournament.
“Obviously it left a sour taste in our mouths,” said coach Clint Hull. “We had a good summer to get better and closer to our goal.”
CCS has nine returnees, four of whom started at some point last year. Preston Wynne, from Wellpinit, led scoring at 18.8 points per game. DeAngelo Jones (Cheney) is much improved. Taylor Petterson (Shadle Park), coming off injury, and Luke Evans (NC), a red-shirt, are among 10 locals on the roster.
Along with other newcomers, Hull envisions a 9- or 10-player rotation, the better to run his uptempo, pressure defense style.
“I definitely like our group,” Hull said. “We’re deep enough for sure.”