With the graduation of two top scorers and a coaching change after the 2016-17 season, the Annie Wright girls basketball team had work to do to earn a berth in the state tournament.
But these Gators have a trip to Yakima squarely in their sights, thanks to a high-scoring freshman point guard.
How dynamic has Julianna Walker been? She averages 35.2 points per game.
And in coach Chris Spivey’s fast-paced, defense-first system, Annie Wright has set a record for most wins in a season, improving to 15-4 with a win Wednesday night.
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“My expectations were to try to get to the Dome in Yakima,” Walker said. “And so far, we’ve been doing really good.”
And Spivey comes from much bigger venues than the 1A basketball Annie Wright plays. He has previously coached the Tacoma-based Team Access AAU team, the Timberline boys basketball team and River Ridge boys after his basketball playing career at Saint Martin’s University and Timberline.
“I think one of the most important ingredients to winning is competing,” Spivey said. “Competing, playing hard the whole time and supporting each other. Just playing to your potential.”
Makes you wonder what kind of potential Walker has.
She has scored 50 points in a game this season — twice. She has five games of at least 40 points and only four games when she hasn’t scored at least 30.
But Walker also leads Annie Wright in assists (2.8 per game) and is third in rebounds (5.9). Maybe the most staggering stat is steals though — she’s averaging 9.3 per game, with a school-record 15 in a win over Bear Creek.
And much of the team’s potential is wrapped around how far Walker can take them.
Perhaps the easiest way to grasp Walker’s success is not to think of her as a freshman at all. In her own mind, she’s been playing high school-level basketball on the AAU level for years. As an eighth grader, she earned a tryout for the Team USA under-16 squad.
Spivey called her a gym rat, and she said she takes 300 shots per day in practice.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was in the fourth grade,” she said. “I’ve been playing for a long time.”
When you see Walker in pregame warmups, easily draining 3-pointer after 3-pointer, there might be no reason to doubt that potential. She scored 43 points in her Annie Wright debut this season.
For a freshman to post numbers as Walker has, that takes a certain set of circumstances. Not only do you need a player with the requisite talent, but you need a coach who is willing to let her take over. And you need teammates who can complement her.
“There are a lot of dynamics that come with it,” Spivey said. “But the ladies have embraced it. I think they all support each other. I’ve never been one to hold anyone back as long as you’re capable of doing it within a team concept.”
To be sure, Walker isn’t so much a one-person show as an extremely talented player thriving within Spivey’s system.
Junior Amhina Webb, the leading returning scorer from last season, is also having a solid season, averaging 7.7 points per game and coming off a season-high 17 points in a 63-21 victory over Eastside Prep on Jan. 30. Post players Raquel Berman, Phoebe Brown and Ali MacChord play key roles doing the hard work in the paint to help get Walker some of her looks at the basket.
“It takes five on the court, as well as everyone on the sideline cheering,” Spivey said. “They put (Walker) in a position because she’s getting so much attention, and they’re sacrificing and setting screens for her to get attention doing what they’re doing.”
They’ve clicked with Walker very quickly.
“I think she’s a really fun person to play with,” Webb said. “I think we understand each other. If she’s frustrated or I’m frustrated, we help each other get out of our heads.”
Walker’s offensive style isn’t so much as a shooter, but just a scorer — anything to get the ball in the hoop, whether it’s her relentless drives into the lane or those long-range shots with her funky release from the right shoulder. And she has a shooter’s confidence, completely unafraid to let a shot fly five feet (or more) behind the 3-point arc.
But Spivey is a defensive-minded coach. So he likes all those steals most. Walker almost had a triple-double when she had 40 points, 10 steals and nine rebounds in a win over Forest Ridge Sacred Heart. And she had 38 points, 11 steals and nine rebounds last week’s win over Northwest.
“Defensively, she gets after it,” Spivey said. “People see the 36 points and 50 points, but one thing that goes unnoticed is she gets a lot of steals. She hustles.”
The next question is whether the Walker-led Gators can force their way to the Sun Dome, after falling two games short in the 1A bi-district tournament last season.
At the moment, Spivey likes the state of the team going into the postseason.
“The playoffs are a brand new season,” he said. “I like where we are at in a lot of aspects, but the competition is going to get stronger, and we have to get ready to play.”