With season three of high school athletics’ shortened schedules looming, both Yelm and Rainier girls varsity basketball teams are working on melding crews of four experienced basketball players with rosters of younger players.
Yelm Girls Basketball
Russ Riches returned for his 25th season as the Yelm girls varsity basketball coach this season, for possibly the strangest year he has ever encountered.
“This is a really weird year, with only seven practices before our first game,” Riches said. “We’re just trying to get everything in.”
Despite the challenges posed to his kids in the COVID-19 shuffle, he said they are shaping up to be a great bunch.
“I love our kids,” he said last week in an interview with the Nisqually Valley News.
“We’ve only been at it for three days and there’s already a good camaraderie being mixed. They’re working well together. They like each other. It’s going to be a fun group to work with.”
He said the team has a very good inside presence with senior Bayleigh Harder, great shooting potential with senior My’Kel Jones, a good shot at getting tons of rebounds through the efforts of senior Samantha Rohwedder, and the ability to play smart basketball with the knowledge senior Lenna Miskimens brings to the game.
“They’ve been in our program, and been at the varsity level for a minimum of three years, and just have really become leaders in our program,” he said.
Last season, Harder was an all-league first team player, an all-area second team player, led the league in blocks, and scored an average of 12 points a game with eight rebounds to boot.
“She’s a presence both offensively and defensively,” Riches said, of Harder, adding that he has high hopes for her performance this season as well.
Yet, he said everyone on the roster has something to offer.
“I think each kid is going to have a significant role,” he said. “It’s just a matter of sort of just discovering what those roles are going to be, as soon as we get further into the season and figure out what the rotation is going to be.”
As a team, Riches said the girls’ collective ability to zip across the court and maximize their quickness will be a huge asset, and that, with plenty of strong shooters, they should be able to put points up on the board.
Typically, his teams excel at defensive play, he said, but with so little time so far in practice or in games, it’s still too early to tell if this season’s showing will be more of the same, so defense will certainly be a large focus for the team during their coming hours in the gym.
To be successful, Riches said his girls will need to shift their abilities to play as a cohesive unit into overdrive, and really work at playing together.
The varsity lineup has four seniors, two juniors and three freshmen this year, and with such a variety of ages, “getting to know each other is going to be the biggest thing for us,” Riches said. “They already are starting that process, but that’s going to be the big thing.”
To compensate for the shortened, six-week season, players will study film from last year, and then film from this season’s games, as Yelm will play other teams in the league three times each. The goal here is to hone in on what players can do individually and collectively to improve from their latest showing.
This season will be especially strange, Riches said, since the girls will be playing in masks, and his coach staff is going to work overtime to give them enough rotational breaks to compensate for whatever oxygen loss their muscles are receiving because of the restriction.
The season spans from April 26 to the team’s last game on June 11. This shortened season will also cause the team to focus on ensuring every second of gym time is useful and effective.
“We are going to have to manage our time well,” Riches said. “We are going to have to manage our practices efficiently. We are just grateful that we have a season at all. Even as early as a month ago we weren’t even sure there was going to be a season, so we are going to take advantage of that.”
He said he will strive to have all drills and practice time translate directly to in-game situations.
Watching these ladies progress over the year, in some cases since they were young in the district’s youth basketball camps, Riches said he is impressed by their collective growth.
“With the kids who are seniors and juniors, they have really progressed,” he said. “They really work hard at trying to learn something new every day and improve on the skills that they have.”
This season will be different for Riches in more ways than just what the virus that causes COVID-19 can affect.
“This is my 25th year as a head coach, and actually my last one,” he said. “I’m retiring at the end of the school year from teaching and we’re moving to Minnesota, so this will be a sort of a mixed-emotions season for me. I’ve invested a lot of my life in this program. I’ve had the ability to see these kids come and go. I’ve coached kids of parents who were in my program and those kinds of things. So it has been a fun journey and I’m looking forward to seeing this be a good finish.
“It will definitely be a season that I will cherish every moment of,” Riches said.
When asked why he has spent so much of his time as a coach, Riches said that he simply loves the kids.
“I love to watch them grow from being someone who doesn’t know much about the game to being very good basketball players. My belief has always been that I want the people that are in our program to be better people when they leave than when they come in, and if they become better basketball players as a result then that’s great.”
Rainier Girls Basketball
In contrast to Riches, Brandon Eygabroad, Rainier girls varsity basketball head coach, has been with the program a relatively short three years, with nine total years coaching Rainier basketball teams.
But Eygabroad has grown as a coach at the pace that his “core four” juniors have grown as basketball players. These players include standouts Selena Niemi, Faith Boesch, Isabella Holmes, and Kaeley Schultz, the former first team, former co-MVP of the league.
“They’ve just put an enormous amount of time in, and have shown this commitment to the program so they are all really going to stand out in one way or another,” Eygabroad said. “Now it may be one game, one stands out a little more, but they all have (something to offer.)”
He said Schultz is the most well-rounded out of the bunch, with her abilities to shoot, drive and post up, along with an excellent defensive aptitude. Holmes is also well-rounded, he said, possessing the abilities to defend, drive and attack, as well as post up. Finally, there’s Boesch and Niemi, who can defend and who have honed a sense for three-pointers, he said.
“My core four have played together since they were growing up in sixth, seventh grade,” Eygabroad said. “They have that chemistry. They’ve played so much that they have started to become well-rounded basketball players. Shoot, drive, score, pass — the four are getting better at that.”
He said other than the core four, there’s a younger cohort of a couple eighth graders, a freshman and a sophomore, who have all played a ton of basketball. He said that while the team may be young in years, they’re very experienced on the court.
“There’s multiple people on my team who can shoot, there’s multiple people on my team who can dribble, there’s multiple people who can go down to the post and post up,” Eygabroad said. “One player plays off another player very nicely. They compliment each other.”
Melding these two cohorts will be the challenge, though.
“Some things that I want to work on, since I have this old group and this young group, is molding the girls together,” he said. “I have the four who have played together. I have a couple younger girls who have played together. It’s really getting the young ones and the old ones to play together and learning how each other likes to play.”
Eygabroad said his approach for this shortened season is “totally different than a normal season, especially with this group.”
As a coach, his challenge is to set realistic goals that are going to determine if his team is successful or not, based on their capabilities.
“Normally, with this group we would want to make a run at state, but with no state competition, we are going to treat this as an extended summer,” he said. “We’re trying to build this chemistry. We’re trying to learn how to play with each other and use it as a time to grow as a team.”
Ultimately, Eygabroad said he’s just happy to share his passion for basketball with another generation, but it’s more than that.
“It’s really about the kids, the ability to have an impact on them every single day during the season that you see them, to influence, to empower them, to inspire,” Eygabroad said. “Ultimately the goal is to impact their lives in as many positive ways as I can throughout my time with them.”