When a team is undefeated heading into the middle of January, basketball coaches will understandably want to pinch themselves. When a team’s off to a dream start, coaches want to make certain they’re not, in fact, dreaming.
Freddie Rehkow isn’t dreaming, and his Central Valley girls basketball team figures to give opposing teams a few sleepless nights. The Lady Bears already boast an average margin of victory approaching 18 points per game.
“The thing is, we haven’t peaked,” Rehkow said. “We’re not even close to peaking – I think we’re just now figuring out how to play with one another and are still putting it all together. But when we do peak, it’s going to be a sight to see.”
But that’s not why Rehkow pinches himself.
It’s Mariah Cunningham, a 6-foot sophomore post, who spurs her coach into giving himself an occasional reminder.
Already a two-year starter, Cunningham is a solid contributor who still is learning how good a player she can be.
“We tell her all the time,” Rehkow said. “We tell her that, if she keeps working hard, she can be something special. Every once in a while she’ll do something that makes you stop and think to yourself ‘How did she do that?’ She’s tall, sure, but she can flat get out and run and that’s what you notice – she can pull down a rebound and still be one of the first players down the floor.”
Add to the mix a 5-10 freshman, Madison Hovren, and the coach is excited for his program over the next two or three seasons.
Already, he says, he sees flashes of what’s to come.
“You’ll see Mariah just take over for a minute or two and do something that makes you shake your head,” he said. “I think you’ll see more of that kind of thing from her from now on.”
Does her play remind her coach of any players he’s seen before?
“I try to compare them to some of the players we’ve had here in the past,” Rehkow laughed. “I’ll throw a name out and they’ll give me a blank look and just say, ‘Who?’ ”
For her part, Cunningham is more comfortable talking about how far she’s come in her two seasons with the Bears.
“I think the biggest difference for me this season is that I’m not as scared as I was,” she said. “Last year was my first year playing teams in this league and I really wasn’t sure what to expect from game to game. This year I know what to expect.
“And I think the game is kind of slowing down for all of us. We know each other and we understand the game.”
Well, maybe not so much on defense. Yet.
“Oh, the fouls,” she lamented. “I’m still learning how to play defense and not foul, but it’s hard.”
In part, her coach explains, Cunningham is stronger and quicker than she was a year ago – and there are times on defense that she’s too quick to the ball and ends up colliding with her opponent.
Being too quick to the ball is a problem most players will never face. And, Rehkow predicted, her speed up and down the floor will become a bigger and bigger part of her game.
“She can flat-out run,” he said. “I first got to know her family when her brother played soccer with my son and I remember watching him run and being amazed at how fast he got up and down the field. Mariah is the same way.”
Over the summer Cunningham worked hard in the conditioning program and on being a stronger presence in the middle. The coltishness of her freshman season fades with every game. And she is just now learning how to use her height on defense.
“I talked to her just the other day and asked her to put her hands up,” he said. “I put my hands up and showed her that she has an even bigger wingspan than I have. I think she finally got it – she doesn’t have to reach or foul to defend. When you’re as big as she is and have the reach she has, all you have to really do is put your arms up and you’re going to force them to alter their shot.”
“That’s been a problem for me,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been reaching trying to block shots and that’s where I get called for fouls. There have been games where I get into foul trouble and I can’t stay in the game.”
Staying in the game is important to Cunningham.
“We’re not so much a team as we are a family,” Cunningham said. “Last year the upperclassmen welcomed me and helped me adjust. They helped to make me confident and made me feel confident that I belonged.
“We all do that, now. When we scrimmage with the younger players we make sure we tell them how well they’re playing and encourage them to keep working hard.”
That’s all part of the Cunningham experience.
“Everybody loves Mariah,” Rehkow said. “She’s always got a big smile on her face and she’s just a great teammate.”