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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fresh faces: With dearth of seniors across GSL, freshmen step up on scoring leaderboard

There is a youth movement in the Greater Spokane League girls basketball 4A/3A division. While that might not necessarily be a bad thing, it is a surprising if not stark reminder that the retention of these elite high school student athletes might not be as simple as it used to be.

This season, there are 20 freshmen on the varsity rosters of the 10 GSL 4A/3A teams. That might not seem like a big number upon first inspection, but those same 10 teams only carry 17 seniors. It’s a shocking disparity.

In the GSL 2A ranks, the comparison is similar but not as extreme. The six 2A schools have 19 seniors and eight freshmen on varsity rosters.

Across the two divisions, 17 seniors play for three teams – Rogers (seven), North Central (five) and Clarkston (five). That leaves 19 seniors on the remaining 13 teams. Seven teams have one or none.

“What’s crazy is, it’s not just a Spokane thing,” Gonzaga Prep coach Geoff Arte said. “If you look at the teams on the other side of state, they’re pretty young, too.”

Comparing those statistics to the boys teams provides context. On the 16 league teams, there are 82 seniors and just 10 freshmen.

If we look at the student body as a whole, there are 1,262 senior girls enrolled in the five Spokane Public Schools and just 1,060 freshmen, according to an SPS spokesperson. There aren’t fewer senior girls in school this year, just fewer basketball players.

Youth served

For the most part, the ninth-graders on varsity rosters aren’t just practice players.

Of the top 15 leading scorers in the 4A/3A girls, only three are seniors. In fact, three of the top seven – including leading scorer Aylah Cornwall of Gonzaga Prep at 21.3 points per game – are freshmen. Only one of the top eight, reigning league MVP Teryn Gardner of Mead, is a senior.

“The game has evolved. These freshmen, they’re ballers,” Mead coach Quantae Anderson said. “We have a freshman who’s a baller, I think could start on any other team in the GSL. But she’s playing behind (Gardner). The game’s evolved. These younger girls are putting in a lot of time.”

Cornwall is joined by Ridgeline’s Grace Sheridan (15.2 ppg) and Central Valley’s Drae Domebo (12.6 ppg) on the scoring leaderboard. Each are gifted playmakers and have taken a natural leadership role on their respective teams despite not being old enough to possess a driver’s license.

“I think there are a lot of freshmen coming from club that are really good,” Sheridan said. “Most of us play on the same club teams, so most of the freshmen know each other.”

“I feel like even though I’m a freshman, I still have to be a (leader) being the point guard,” Cornwall said. “I have to be on the floor coaching, as well as also understanding that I’m a freshman, and that it’s not always my job to demand everybody to do certain things.”

“She has remarkable skills as a 15-year-old,” Arte said of Cornwall. “Everybody loves the scoring, and it’s what gets put in the newspaper on most nights, but she’s incredibly on balance. Probably the most on-balance basketball player I’ve ever been around.”

For Arte, Cornwall’s role is all about making “winning plays.”

“If that’s scoring to help us win, do that. If it’s making the extra pass, if it’s finding the post, if it’s getting people in the right spots on defense – that’s how you become a winner and move on to the next level. And she’s already really far ahead in those in most of those aspects.”

“I feel like I’m really good at seeing the floor,” Cornwall said. “I like to help my teammates score and just get them easy buckets. … I feel like I can see the court well on how to break (a press), where the next pass is, where the defense will shift. How to get through that and set up easy buckets for my teammates, or in some cases myself. Just making the next better decision.”

Sheridan knows there are high expectations.

“Coming in, you can’t really take on thinking you’re a freshman and play down to a level,” she said. “You have to play up to everybody’s expectations. You have to expect more from yourself than anybody else.”

“Grace brings great energy to our team,” Ridgeline coach Clyde Woods said. “She’s really opened some things up for us. Before people could just play us head-up on the ball 1-on-1. Now they’ve got to slide over and help, so there’s always someone cutting to the basket or relocating into a spot where they can catch and shoot.”

Senior shortage

Why are there so few seniors in the league this year? Ask 10 coaches and you might get 10 answers.

One common theme everyone points out is that the class of 2024 is the last “COVID year.” This year’s crop of seniors was in eighth grade when the world shut down, and they spent their freshman year learning remotely. The high school basketball season was postponed until the middle of May and didn’t last a full calendar month with just 12 games.

“That’s a tough time and that’s a really big stage in your development – for basketball, for every sport, and for school and everything,” Arte said. “We’re on the upswing now, but I think there’s probably some of that – just some leftover from the COVID years where kids weren’t playing as much as normal.”

“I think that when COVID hit, there was a lull in our basketball circuit here in Spokane,” Woods said. “Now that we’re kind of getting out of COVID, things are starting to pick up and we’re seeing that with the freshmen we have in the league.”

Another factor is the proliferation of specialization in girls sports, specifically the separation of volleyball and basketball players – two sports that incorporate some similar skill sets and physical attributes.

Only one of 34 players selected to the GSL all-league volleyball teams in the fall also plays varsity basketball. But it goes both ways – none of the top 20 scorers in basketball play volleyball, either.

It seems that in middle school, female student-athletes are asked to choose between the two sports.

“(Specialization) is very difficult to overcome,” Anderson said.

He told the story of a prominent volleyball player at the school who played basketball up until the seventh grade and decided not to continue on with the sport.

“It was a decision by her and her family, and it turned out OK for her,” he said.

But Anderson laments the single-sport athlete. His best player, Gardner, is all-league in soccer, basketball and track.

“I joke about our volleyball team, ‘Where are all those 6-footers when we’re playing basketball?’ ” Arte said. “Because we have a few walking around school that I wished would play basketball. … I think the specialization kind of comes into it when you get these really, really high-end kids and maybe they’ve been told really early that they can only play one sport.”

‘Love of the game’

Anderson said the relentless pursuit of “the next level” is another factor in retention of players.

“Some of the older girls, if they aren’t getting as much playing time, or feel like they aren’t being recruited the right way, there are other teams out there,” he said. “I just wish we could get back to girls playing all four years and playing for the love of the game.”

Mead has five seniors in its program, three on varsity and two on JV. The rest of Anderson’s varsity roster has two juniors, four sophomores and freshman Ellie Thornton.

“For me, if a freshman is going to make varsity, they have to get into the game each quarter and get 12, 15, 18 minutes a game,” Anderson said. “Last year we had three of them – and two of them started and the other came off the bench and played a lot of minutes. And a lot of times we had all three of them on the court at the same time.”

A trickier question to ask – and answer – is how much club basketball impacts high school participation. Elite players obviously earn spots on AAU and travel teams, but if an eighth-grader is told she isn’t good enough to travel, maybe she moves to a different sport or quits altogether.

“I think there was an issue with club (in the area) back in the day, when these ninth-graders and sophomores were fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders,” Anderson said. “I think it turned a lot of kids off of basketball because there were these super teams. ‘We’re gonna get all the top players from all around and beat teams 76-2,’ which would turn off any player.”

Anderson thinks the lax transfer rules in the state also play a part.

“We’re in a ‘me’ world,” he said. “ ‘If I’m not getting this, then I need to go somewhere else.’ … If they don’t make varsity by their sophomore year, they might think it’s tough for them to play there. Or if they aren’t playing a lot by their junior year, they might not bother to come out senior year. Which is really unfortunate. It takes away from that team atmosphere.”

The days where an athlete is satisfied with being a “team player” might be past.

“It’s about competition; you want to win. And you want to contribute,” Anderson said. “But you have to be OK with whatever your contribution is. Sometimes you’re the best player on the team. Sometimes you are the highest scorer. But sometimes you are the person, where you’re the glue. You work your butt off in practice, and you make those teammates around you better on and off the court. And whenever you get a chance to play you give 100% of everything you have because you’re enjoying every minute. That’s what we’re missing with a lot of our kids.”

Gonzaga Prep freshman Aylah Cornwall leads

the Greater Spokane League 4A/3A division

in scoring with 21.3 points per game.