Stacy Clinesmith remembers gathering around the television with her besties one night in early March 1992 to watch their heroes play in a state championship basketball game.
Mead was in its third consecutive title game and the girls that taught them fundamentals at summer camps and inspired them on Tuesday and Friday nights were trying to win a second championship.
“I was in junior high, watching the Colleen Flanigan team in 1992,” Clinesmith said. “Allison Beatty, Jen Clark, Chelsea Clark, the whole crew was at my house watching that game.”
The Panthers defeated Auburn 49-48, reliving the joy of 1990 and erasing the disappointment of 1991.
“We said we were going to do that,” Clinesmith said. “We already felt we were part of something and we wanted to continue the tradition.”
Mead was fourth place the next year, when Central Valley broke through with an undefeated team. Then Clinesmith arrived at high school and the hardware kept coming, with third place in 1994 and fifth in 1995.
“In college, I remember following the program,” Flanigan, now Thornton, said. “I remember thinking some of those girls, like Clinesmith, you knew they would be good. We knew who they were in middle school, they came to camp, they would come to our games.”
And in 1996 that group made it to the final game.
“Colleen called me in my hotel room,” Clinesmith said. “My point guard idol was calling me. I looked up to her (during) her whole career and the night before the state championship game she called me. It’s stuff like that that was so cool. That’s kind of what Mead was about at the time.”
Flanigan to Clinesmith, with a year in between, has to be one of the more remarkable runs in Spokane sports history.
Seven consecutive trips to state.
A 23-5 record under the brightest lights.
Three championships and trophies for second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes.
A 101-17 record in the Greater Spokane League with six titles.
A 174-27 record overall.
Mead’s coach was Jeanne Helfer, who Thornton and Clinesmith call an inspirational leader, demanding instructor and cherished friend.
A couple of Helfer stories reveal the secret of the Panthers’ success during that amazing stretch.
Helfer was an outstanding athlete at Walla Walla, earning the first full-ride scholarship given to a female athlete at Washington State, where she became the all-time leading basketball scorer, male or female, in school history. She also qualified for the Olympic Trials in the javelin.
Mead had a losing record Helfer’s first season (1983-84) and the Panthers had double-figure wins for the next five years without making it to the state tournament.
“I couldn’t even get to state,” Helfer said. “I don’t know what the kids would say, (but) I was obsessed with it. I remember thinking I was the Minnesota Vikings. I couldn’t win the big one.”
Shadle Park won state in 1988 and 89, with Lewis and Clark finishing second and third.
Then came 1990, when Mead beat University to win the district tournament and regular-season champion Central Valley and U-Hi to win regional. All three advanced to state. In Seattle, Mead beat CV in the semifinals and Federal Way 47-37 for the championship. (CV beat U-Hi, which fell to Federal Way in the semis, 51-34 for third place.)
The titles were great, but Helfer realized something was missing.
“My team just came through,” Helfer said. “When all was said and done, I go, ‘Holy cow, I got this screwed up.’ I mean, it was really cool we won it, but if we are only going to look at the end result. …
“Am I going to be so torn and driven and obsessed with it, can I enjoy the journey? … That first one was special, (but) the coach learned a big lesson. I said, ‘I don’t want to win like this,’ (because) I felt like I was short-changing my kids.”
“I get it,” Thornton, now a counselor at Mead, said. “It’s kind of like anything else right before you really experience it. It’s almost, ‘What do I need to do to get there?’ and once you do experience it, you reflect and the goal changes.
“In those three years I played for her, there was definitely this drive, constantly striving to be competitive, to win. But in my opinion, it was never at the expense of enjoying the ride alone the way.”
In 1991, the Panthers got back to the championship game but lost to Auburn, the team that beat CV in the second round, 44-36, a loss that still stings.
“Oh absolutely!” said Helfer, the ultimate competitor who never forgets a loss. “I can recall the journey, I can tell you everything. But I bet I’ve apologized to Colleen (and her family) a million times. … She should have won three in a row. I gagged. I absolutely felt like I was responsible for that.”
Thornton laughed, not the least bit surprised when she heard what her coach said about the final game of her junior year.
“That’s 100% Jeanne being a competitor, you know,” Thornton said. “I mean, that’s not my recollection at all. I remember it was a good game, but it just wasn’t ours to win that day for whatever reason. I don’t think it had anything to do with coaching or an specific play, in my opinion. (But) I could totally see her doing that, but it’s easy to second-guess things later.”
The Mead dynasty didn’t end after three consecutive title games and Flanigan’s graduation.
In 1993, Mead lost to Snohomish, with a Stanford-bound point guard, in the second round, but CV exacted some GSL revenge in the title game. The Panthers knocked off Shadle Park in the second round in 1994 but fell to Battle Ground in the semifinals before beating Lake Washington for third.
The 1995 tournament is another haunting memory. In the regional, Mead lost the title game to Kamiakin, but by the rules of the day was supposed to be considered a No. 1 seed for the tournament draw. Because of a mistake, the Panthers were paired against another No. 1 seed, Prairie, in the first round. The Falcons won 47-44 and went on to win the championship, Mead eliminated Shadle Park then finished fifth.
Helfer still beats herself up for not being at the draw.
“We only lost one game at state, so the difference between fifth and second was negligible,” Clinesmith said.
Still, Clinesmith and friends reached their senior year without that championship and it didn’t look good to get one. The Panthers lost to Kamiakin, led by Clinesmith’s good friend Carmel Lampson, by a dozen in the preseason and by 15 in the regional final.
“I remember that regional game, I was so rattled,” said Clinesmith, who played three seasons in the WNBA and is now an assistant at Gonzaga. “But you cannot give Helfer enough credit, she knew exactly what we needed to do at the state tournament.”
Helfer said she appreciates Clinesmith’s confidence, but it was hardly that simple. She stewed and stewed as she scouted Kamiakin’s first three games at state.
Helfer told assistant Carl Barschig they have to quit worrying about Lampson and instead free Clinesmith from defensive ace Deanna Lansing, who had taken the Mead star out of her game in their previous meetings. Helfer tasked Jen Bennett with setting a hard but legal screen that jarred Lansing and cut loose Clinesmith on Mead’s first possession.
“Jen was so sweet and she felt so bad,” Clinesmith said. “I don’t know if I went down and scored, (but) Jen’s like crying about it and I was like, ‘No, what do you mean? It’s fine, it’s great, let’s do it again.’ ”
Mead got that state title with a 44-41 win.
As the trophies piled up, Helfer still worried. She took pride in never embarrassing an opponent and she protected her players.
“I had to work hard to make sure these kids didn’t feel the pressure that I knew was on them,” Helfer said. “That was my biggest challenge. Nobody wants to play under that pressure, that you can’t have a bump in the road. But one of the greatest compliments I can give to those kids in the ’90s was their ability to do what they did under the pressure they had.”
Mead has continued to have success, although it’s more like a traditional high school experience with an ebb and flow. The Panthers placed fourth in 1999 and eighth in 2001. Helfer went with the new school in the district, Mt. Spokane, in 2002-03 and coached there for 11 seasons. Mead placed fourth in 2007, second in 2010 and won state in 2013.
But nothing has come close to duplicating that seven-year run.
“Yeah, those were just really, really amazing teams,” Helfer said.
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