Some students might see practice as a way to get away from their families, but that’s not been the case for Eliza Stark.
If anything, basketball practice was simply an extension of her family life. Three of her four sisters played with her on the Northport High girls basketball team this spring, and Erik Stark, her dad, was the head coach.
“It’s like a built-in family bonding time,” said Eliza Stark, who graduated this month and then completed her senior basketball season a few days later. “Instead of family game night, it’s basketball practice.”
Northport High School, which plays in the Northeast 1B League, had 38 students during the 2020-21 school year. It is, like so many schools its size, reliant on the ebbs and flows of athletic talent to stock its rosters each season. Some years, there simply aren’t enough interested players to field every team.
But 2020-21 was supposed to be a strong season for its girls basketball team, whose roster of nine included four Starks: Eliza, a senior; Belle, a sophomore; and Alexus and Olivia, twin eighth graders.
They finished 5-4 overall and 4-2 in conference play, one game behind league champion Wellpinit. Of Northport’s four losses, three of them came by a combined four points.
“As a coach you look for silver linings,” Erik Stark said. “Five-and-four doesn’t sound good, but it’s better than where we’ve been in 15 years.”
There were no state basketball tournaments this season due to the pandemic, so a winning record is what Northport had to settle for, rather than a chance to win a second consecutive state title for the conference, after Inchelium won State 1B in 2020.
“It was a very different season,” Eliza said. “It felt like summer basketball or a tournament. It was a different atmosphere, but it was still awesome that we got to play.”
It was especially sweet for the four oldest Stark sisters – Liesel, the fifth, is 9 years old and was the team’s ball girl – who finally got a chance to play on the same team together.
Erik and Tomi Stark moved their family to Northport 15 years ago, when Erik, a Spokane Valley native, accepted a teaching job at the high school after working for a few years at Sehome High School in Bellingham.
At Northport, “you’ve got every hat,” he said, and for Stark that has included stints as athletic director, baseball coach and boys’ basketball coach, among many other titles. He was the girls’ basketball coach five years ago and returned this year for Eliza’s senior season, but he did so with a level of trepidation.
Stark said he asked friends who had coached their children, and they advised against it. Too hard on relationships, he said many told him.
“In my mind, I didn’t want to coach my kids because I wanted to be a good dad,” he said. “My relationships with them are eternal. I didn’t want them to hate me because I was the coach.”
But with few coaching options available, Stark stepped in this season. His daughters said it went fine and that there were advantages.
“I really like it because he understands me,” Olivia said. “He can teach (basketball) in a way that I can understand it.”
Still, there were times, Belle said, when spending so much time around her dad was a little overwhelming.
“I’d see him at home, and I’d enjoy time with him as a family, and then I’d go to school and it’s whatever, he’s my teacher,” Belle said. “And then we’d get to practice and it’s like, well, I’m tired of hearing your voice.”
Still, that time spent together had its benefits, and the understanding spread to the on-court relationships between the sisters as well. Aside from basketball camps, this was really the first year they were all on the same team, practicing together, Eliza said.
“I have a friend on the team too and we have a special connection where you’re looking for them to see if they’re open,” Eliza said. “When it’s your sister, you’re even more aware of that. It’s almost instinctive.”
Eliza plans to attend BYU in Provo, Utah, in the fall. Kylie Corcoran also graduated, which means seven players are expected to return to the team next season, including three Stark sisters and one rising senior, Madison Straayer.
Belle said she hoped for her sister’s sake as well as the team’s that there could have been a state tournament, because “I knew we woulda been good,” she said.
Next year, the team will have a different feel.
“(For) me and the other sophomores, we’ve always been the second oldest,” Belle said. “Kylie and Eliza, we’ve never played without them being there. It’s gonna be different because now we’re the old ones.”
The incoming class of ninth graders, including Olivia and Alexus, is big enough that the overall high school population will rise to about 50, Erik Stark said, which he called “the Mendoza line for having functional sports.”
It looks like the school will have enough players to run a baseball team, he said, though in a few years they might struggle to have a girls basketball team.
“We need somebody to move in with five kids,” Stark said.
But for next season, the girls’ basketball team will have enough players, and even though only three of them will be Starks, in some sense, the connections between all the girls on the team are like sisters, Alexus said.
“Since (Northport is) so small, you’re almost forced to be friends because you’re with each other all the time,” Alexus said. “Everyone’s so close together and (we all) have a really strong bond.”
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