When you stand in at 5-foot-3, the word “big” is not generally used to describe you. And when you play basketball – a game that places a premium on height, it’s not generally used to describe your game, either.
But then again, Jenni White is not your typical 5-3 basketball player.
“I’ve asked Jenni to step up and accept some pretty big challenges these last couple seasons,” coach East Valley Rob Collins said. “She steps up and meets them head-on every time.
“Jenni is a very good golfer for me (in the spring). When you stop and think about it, she plays basketball with the same kind of unflappable calm that she plays golf with. “
The junior guard just smiles.
“I like it when he does that,” she said. “I like being challenged like that. It motivates me.”
The challenges were first thrown down a year ago, Collins said.
“Jenni wasn’t a starter for us right away last year,” he said. “But we had some real injury problems. We lost (guards) Morgan (Manchester) and we lost the league’s leading scorer, Kelsi (Jacobson) to injuries, and Jenni was one of the players we asked to step up and fill in.”
Despite a slow start that saw the Knights win just once in the first half of the season a year ago, the team rallied to reach the regional tournament – thanks in large part to White.
“The big turning point for Jenni was in the district playoff game with Mt. Spokane,” Collins said. “Kelsi went down early in the game with her knee injury, and I turned to Jenni and told her that we needed her. And we really needed her.”
The Knights struggled through the first half of that playoff game – the district championship game, trailing by a field goal, 20-18. The second half, however, was a different story.
A pair of three-pointers by White from the top of the key and another from the right baseline sparked the East Valley rally and marked a turning point in White’s basketball career.
“I think it was,” White said. “Since that game I’ve thought about basketball differently. It changed my attitude about the game and the way I approach the game.”
White picked up this season where she left off. Jacobson wound up transferring to University before seeing her high school career end with a knee injury. White moved into the starting lineup and has been one of her team’s top scorers through the first 11 games, averaging more than 10 points per game.
“I’ve had to get after her from time to time,” Collins said. “When she’s not hitting her shots, she has a tendency to want to pass off. I have to keep telling her to shoot and keep shooting. She has a very nice shot. She’s not all that big and when we go up against teams like Mead or LC, she’s got 6-foot defenders on her, but she still gets off that shot – a nice floater or a big arc high off the backboard. It’s fun to see her do it.”
“It’s hard for me to keep shooting when I miss three or four shots in a row,” White said. “I know it’s something I have to do, but my instinct is to always pass.”
The Knights entered Friday’s game with Rogers with a 5-6 record, making for an air of confidence surrounding the team.
“We’ve gotten off to a much better start this year than we did last year and I think that’s really helped this team,” White said. “We’re all very good friends and we all get along really well together. And now we know that we’re a pretty good team.”
That kind of knowledge is key for a Class 3A school in perhaps the toughest Class 4A girls basketball league in the state. The GSL’s Class 3A schools routinely reach the playoffs with sub-.500 records.
“You have to understand the situation and realize just what the season is going to look at,” Collins said. “You have to realize that the games that are most important to you are the ones against the other Class 3A teams in the league, and beyond that you have probably the best nonleague schedule any team could ask for.”
White understands the challenge.
“We really love to play teams like (three-time defending state champion) Lewis and Clark,” she said. “If we can play with them, we can play with anyone. Before we go out on the court for a game with them we look at each other, and we remind one another about just how cool it will be to knock those guys off.”
The Knights head into Friday’s Gauntlet Game with Rogers on a high note. White pumped in a career high 20 points to lead her teammates past North Central, 46-22.
After Wednesday’s practice, Collins was stressing double-teams to his players even while the gym was hurriedly transformed for that night’s GSL wrestling match with Ferris.
He just wasn’t talking about defending the visiting Pirates.
“Hey, remember – we have 1,000 balloons that have to be blown up tonight,” he said.
This night, the Knights’ transition game involved painting posters to represent the visiting Pirates players, blowing up stacks and stacks of black balloons and preparing to transform the gym into something akin to Gotham City for the Dark Knight-themed Gauntlet Game.
“I’ve been excited about this game all season long,” White said. “This is going to be a fun game for us. We’re going to have a full gym and lots of noise. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
She thought for a moment.
“The rest of the season is going to be pretty fun, too,” she said. “We’re playing well, and we know just how good we can be. We got to the regional last year. This year, we’re going to make it all the way to state.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.