The game ended with a rare Bellarmine Prep loss. Arguing, bickering and finger-pointing ensued – some visible on the court, but most, the players said, occurred behind closed doors.
These five starters have played together for so long. All started last year in Bellarmine’s run to the 4A state semifinals, becoming the most successful team in school history, and are back for another go at it this year. But they say it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.
Take that early-season 60-59 loss to Kentridge last year.
“There were a lot of things off the court being said,” said Shalyse Smith, Bellarmine Prep’s standout forward. “A lot of closed-door stuff.”
Now there’s a turtle.
It was Smith’s birthday and the University of Arizona basketball signee was surrounded by her teammates who presented her with a present – Bobla, the messy, smelly turtle.
Team chemistry is now one of this group’s greatest attributes. They’re close enough to gift their teammate a turtle (except Bobla recently bit Smith in the tongue, which she caught on video. It sent her to the emergency room).
But ... moving on.
“Now if someone corrects us, we think about it and go, ‘OK.’ But past years we would just shout back, like, ‘No! I know what I’m doing,’” senior guard Madeline Garcia said. “We are much more accepting because there is so much trust between us.”
“We are all really good friends,” senior guard Jenny Hagle said. “I know that everyone on the team will have my back no matter what.”
And there’s a common goal.
They say something is so glaringly awry in their school’s trophy case. The past three years Bellarmine has watched Gonzaga Prep, Central Valley and Kentridge win state titles, and the past three years they’ve also beaten each of those three teams.
“That has been on my mind since freshman year,” Smith said. “It’s our year now.”
“And I think it would feel deserved,” Garcia said. “Deserved because our goal has finally been reached.”
Garcia, Hagle and Smith pair alongside juniors Reyelle Frazier Ciara Gatpatan for an all-returning starting five that combines well alongside a more experienced, deeper bench.
The greatest difference is the coach. Kim West went from assistant to head coach because Kevin Meines, who had coached the team to 10 consecutive league titles, stepped down to focus on his health and new administrative position.
West has kept practices intense. The warm-ups seem like a full day’s work, but then she has substituted other practice days for yoga sessions. These are all things she has taken from her own playing career, which took her from Bellarmine, to the 2012 Olympics with Great Britain, with stops at Santa Clara, Oregon State (where she was the then-Pac-10’s second leading scorer) and just about all over the globe to play professionally.
“She played girls basketball, so she knows what it’s like to be playing girls basketball,” Smiths said.
“Oh, and she played at a pretty high level,” Garcia laughed.
But West has been around these players as an assistant since they were freshmen, so if Smith isn’t playing her hardest, West knows.
“I mean, Kevin is unbelievable,” West said. “He had a great run here. But it’s different being a woman and being here and graduating from here and playing overseas and coming back and coaching from real-life situations. That’s really the only thing that has changed – just me.”
Bellarmine isn’t the only team with its’ greatest contributors back for another run, though. So does defending state-champion Kentridge, which ended Bellarmine’s season in the state semifinals. Moses Lake returns Arizona State-bound Jamie Loera.
One media outlet had quipped that WIAA might as well have renamed the Tacoma Dome-held state tournament to the Central Valley Invitational for how talented the Spokane Valley team, with its Stanford-bound twins, Lacie and Lexie Hull were. And they’re back.
But Bellarmine went on to beat CV in a wild state-quarterfinal game, ending the Bears’ 53-game win streak, with a 56-55 win behind Smith’s go-ahead bucket with 28 seconds remaining. She finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds.
“It was hard to sleep that night,” Hagle said.
And the next day they’d play Kentridge. Sure, that early season meeting was a mess with how they had struggled just to get along with each other, but things had changed, that was gone, and they had already cruised to a 54-43 win over the Chargers in the district tournament on their way to the district title.
They weren’t able to handle Kentridge’s towering, talented post duo of 6-foot-4 JaQuaya Miller and 6-foot-2 Jordyn Jenkins, especially after coming off such a high as beating Central Valley. Smith was held to five points on 2-of-10 shooting.
“I watched the film a lot over the summer,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a fun game to watch.
“And it was something that was hard to forget,” Garcia said. “We went from the highest of high to the lowest low.”
“You go places and people go, ‘Oh, how did your season go?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, we lost to Kentridge in the semifinals,’” Gatpatan said. “That was just a daily reminder of, wow, we need to work harder for this.”
So Bellarmine looked forward to that all offseason. It opened this year with a 62-61 win over the Chargers, with Smith scoring the go-ahead bucket and Gatpatan had the game-securing block. No other team has scored more than 33 points against Kentridge so far.
How motivated was Bellarmine for that game?
Garcia, Hagle, Frazier, Gatpatan and Smith answered in unison – very.
“I feel like we’re underdogs,” Smith said. “People look at us like we’re going to lose. We’re underrated. And so we show that on the court, that our skill level is there and the talent is there and our speed is there – we have everything.”
“I felt just like we should have done that a few months ago,” Frazier said. “That gives us a lot of motivation for when state comes around – to push harder.”
Bellarmine met Central Valley again in the summer at a team camp in Spokane, with the gym packed full of CV supporters.
Bellarmine lost that rematch and Smith said the opposing coach approached her after the game.
“He came to me and was like, ‘You’re a good player …’ and then he’s like, ‘When we played you guys at state, we just had a terrible game,’” Smith said.
“And I was like, ‘So did we – but that’s OK,’” she laughed.
“We thrive on being the underdogs,” West said. “Me, too. I was an underdog player all the time, but I never stopped. And we know this is going to be a pretty special year – this is a very special team.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677