It’s Aniston Denckla’s opportunity to lead — whether she’s ready or not.
The junior was her league’s MVP as a freshman. Last year that honor went to her teammate, point guard Sydney Peterson.
They were expected to be the dynamic duo of the Kentlake High School girls basketball team’s repeat run to the Tacoma Dome for the 4A state tournamnent.
However, Peterson tore her ACL in July and there went her senior season.
Yet here Kentlake is, anyway, the fifth-ranked team in the state, and Denckla is its co-captain.
She hasn’t let the opportunity to shine a little brighter faze her. That wouldn’t be the Kentlake way.
“I’m working more toward the success of reaching the team’s potential,” said Denckla, a forward who excels both in the post and on the perimeter.
Without Peterson, that potential was unknown before the season.
So the Falcons changed their style of play — and have emerged as an even stronger team, headlined by Denckla, senior guard Jada Leonard and a pair of newcomers at guard — senior Gabby Bruno and Denckla’s sister, freshman Kiernen Denckla.
“We’ve rallied,” Aniston Denckla said. “We are focusing on team offense and defense.
“We used to have set plays for Sydney, but now we have set plays for so many other people, so we really try to push each other’s strength out.”
Kentlake coach G.C. Hillburn said his team has battled its fair share of adversity en route to a 17-2 record. The Falcons’ losses were at undefeated Central Valley of Spokane, the defending 4A champion and the No. 1-ranked team in the state, and against third-ranked Kentridge, which Kentlake had beat earlier in the season.
“Whether it was losing one of their best players in July, or having to play with just seven healthy players the first part of the season, they have actually had to overcome a lot,” Hillburn said of his Falcons.
“I am proud of the fact that they have found a way to play with a chip on their shoulder all year.”
Bruno, a transfer from Lake Oswego High School in Oregon, said her season has been all about adjustments.
“I was a shooter and clearly that’s already a thing here,” she said. “I came up here and said, ‘This is an opportunity to make a new name for myself.’ ”
Striving to do the same is Kiernen Denckla. She has played alongside some of her teammates — including her sister — on AAU teams with the Emerald City Basketball Academy, but said she is becoming more confident with each game at Kentlake.
“I feel like I am coming in with a fresh start,” she said. “Not feeling the vibe of last year. It’s great.”
Hillburn said the biggest change this season is that the Falcons are more interior-focused.
“We have become more of a balanced team that really tries to exploit whatever advantages we have in a given game,” he said.
But the players maintain that the key to their success is how well they jell on the court.
“We’re just great together,” Kiernen Denckla said. “We work hard, we play great — we’re just one.”
Aniston Denckla felt similarly.
“Team basketball,” she said. “That’s what it takes. A team wins a game.”
Strong team chemistry is one thing, but what about sibling rivalry?
The Denckla sisters are adamant that there is none — to the point that both ended their separate remarks about the season with, “I love playing with my sister.”
“I’m way too short to play post,” Kiernen Denckla said, “but it’s great because I can pass her the ball and get her the points.”
It’s that sort of outlook that the Falcons hope will take them all the way. The players are quick to emphasize a focus on going “1-0 every game,” but the postseason is never far from their minds.
“I think we’re going to have a great run,” Bruno said. “I think if we play together like we know we can, you’ll be seeing us go far.”