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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

High-speed player

Steve Christilaw Correspondent

Melissa Baker talks the same way she plays basketball: full speed, direct and with confidence.

A four-year starter at point guard for the Freeman Scotties, Baker is the engine that drives a team ranked No. 2 in the state in the most recent poll by the Associated Press, tied with Brewster and behind Napavine.

“I have to say that this year is the most fun I’ve had playing basketball,” Baker said. “We have a group of seniors who have really dedicated themselves to improving this season and getting this team to the state tournament for the first time in school history.”

Baker has any number of options in the Freeman offense – an option list on which she does not include herself.

“When I first got here, as a freshman, I figured that being the point guard meant that I had to score,” Baker said. “My first option was to look for a way for me to shoot and get to the basket.

“When coach (Matt) Gregg got here last year, he started to teach me what a point guard should be, and that I need to be a passer, that I have to distribute the basketball. If it comes back to me, fine, I can score.”

There was an adjustment period to that change in philosophy last year, Baker admitted. This year it’s engrained.

“I can honestly say that I would gladly give up scoring 20 points a game to make one good pass that helps us win the game,” she said. “I’m much happier getting the ball into the right player’s hands.”

It helps that the Scotties have a number of weapons. Junior Jessie DePell played in a state all-star tournament with Baker last summer. Senior Ashley Taylor has raised her game substantially this season and regularly leads the team in rebounds and scoring. Senior Kaila Floyd, like Baker, is a four-year starter – initially at post, now at guard. And seniors Melissa Triber and Sara Robinson both are integral cogs in the Freeman machine.

On his part, Gregg is pleased with the way Baker has taken the reins.

“Melissa plays the game at high speed, and she’s learning to slow up a bit – that she doesn’t have to go full speed all the time,” the second-year coach said. “I sit back and watch her play and I’m continually amazed at the plays she makes, the passes she makes. She’ll make a one-handed pass on the fly that’s right on the money. First, I’m amazed that she saw the opening in the first place, and second, I’m amazed she was able to get the ball there.”

Which prompts the coach to regularly warn his team about paying attention.

“I tell the players that they have to pay attention,” he laughed. “If they’re not paying attention, they might get hit in the head with a basketball.

“Melissa will occasionally make a bad pass, and she’ll start to get down on herself, but when we go back and look at the tape, we’ll see that her pass was right on the money – her teammate was just late getting to where she was supposed to be.”

Baker would argue that the team is right where it should be. “I think we’ve finally gotten it together, and I think it all came together for us when we played Pullman in our Christmas tournament,” the senior said.

The Scotties lost to the Greyhounds, 60-44, at Pullman Dec. 11, a loss which dropped Freeman to 2-2 at the time.

“We did not play very well in that game, and we knew we were capable of playing better than we did and of beating Pullman,” Baker said. “When we got them here at our place in the tournament, we proved to ourselves that we could do it.”

The area where Baker feels the team has improved is in facing a rather pervasive problem from past years.

“We had a definite tendency to play down to the level of our competition,” she said. “We’d let teams hang around instead of putting them away, and then they would end up beating us.

“Coach Gregg has been working with us to get us to go out and play as hard as we can every game.”

That tendency haunted the Scotties at the end of last year. A state-ranked team all season, Freeman got tripped up in the Northeast District tournament and never reached regionals, let alone the state tournament.

“This is the time when you have to take your game to the next level,” Baker said. “We want to get used to playing our best basketball night in and night out from here on, because we really want to end our senior year playing at state.”