Tim Brown approaches basketball like a jigsaw puzzle.
He knows what a finished masterpiece looks like. And he also knows no puzzle can be completed without all of its pieces.
Around the winter holiday, Brown’s girls squad at Bethel High School was suddenly sputtering. The Braves lost a pair of games during the “T-Town Throwdown” tournament to middle-of-the-road Class 3A Metro League team Franklin and 1A state contender Annie Wright Academy.
It was a tough stretch, no doubt — but not a time to panic. The key piece to a near-future turnaround was sitting right next to him on the bench. It was out-of-service sophomore point guard Esmeralda Morales.
Once Morales returned from a serious foot injury, the Braves went on a winning streak. In fact, they haven’t stopped winning.
Winners of 12 consecutive games since Morales has been in the lineup, the Braves captured their first West Central/Southwest bidistrict title since 2001 — when Bethel was a 4A school — when they upended Peninsula in the 3A championship game Saturday afternoon.
Fully loaded with Morales back, the seventh-seeded Braves will travel east to play second-seeded Mount Spokane in the 3A state regionals Friday night, with a return trip to the state tournament in Tacoma Dome already secured.
“One thing, she keeps the whole team together. If a play is not going right, or we are going too fast, she knows how to slow it down,” said junior Tiarra Brown, the coach’s daughter and 3A Pierce County League MVP.
“We are playing great right now. Our connection and communication are getting better with every game.”
But one day in October, everyone around the program had to hold their collective breath.
Morales was in the gymnasium before school started watching some of the varsity boys players shoot baskets when a volleyball whizzed by her and got stuck in the folded-back grandstands along a side wall.
Not thinking much of it, she climbed up the side of the grandstands to retrieve the volleyball.
Once she threw it back, she took one step down — then made a split-second decision to jump the remaining distance of 8-10 feet.
“I was just being a kid,” Morales said. “I decided to jump.”
As soon as she landed on her feet, she crumpled to the floor. Her right foot immediately began buzzing.
“I just thought it was from the sensation of landing,” she said.
Except once Morales got on her feet, she could not walk. So she sat down.
“I started crying,” he said.
The school nurse helped her into a wheelchair and transported her to the main office where her mother, Rebecca, rushed to pick her up to take her to an urgent-care center. That is where doctors took X-rays and discovered that Morales had broken the fibula.
“I broke it laterally, like it was split down the middle,” Morales said.
Tiarra Brown wasn’t at school at the time, and only knew that a girl injured herself when she saw a student’s video of the morning incident.
“I didn’t know it was Es,” she said. “I heard the news later that night, and I was hoping she wasn’t too hurt because it was the end of fall league, and we were playing Gig Harbor in an important game.”
On Oct. 31, Morales had surgery at MultiCare Allenmore Hospital in Tacoma to fix her broken foot.
At the time, doctors weren’t sure when — or if — Morales would be able to play basketball in her sophomore season.
What aided her healing was the offseason training she had done to strengthen her body. Two weeks later, at Bethel tryouts, she was already dribbling and getting up shots.
The team opened up the season against Roosevelt. With her foot in a cast, she huddled with her teammates to give feedback on what she was seeing on the court.
“I still wanted to have the same energy as a team leader,” Morales said. “In my head, if I acted sad or depressed, it wouldn’t have been fair for my team.”
By mid-December, she began lightly jogging. A few weeks later, she was running around. It was that time she knew she would be returning for the second half of the season.
“We knew it was going to be a struggle (without her),” said Tim Brown, the first-year Bethel coach. “And when she came back against Spanaway Lake, she was still walking and running with a limp, still hesitant to make cuts. It was because she was trying to regain the motion in her foot.”
It wasn’t until the second time the Braves played Wilson on Jan. 25 when Morales said she no longer worried about her foot.
And Bethel no longer has to worry about whether Morales can be an impact player. In her 12 games, she has averaged 16.9 points, 4.2 steals, 4.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 42.9 percent from the floor and 88.6 percent from the free throw line.
“Esmeralda gets our offense started,” Tim Brown said. “And she can do that going up either side of the court, which makes her real valuable since most point guards can only go up one side.
“Now that she is back, we knew we were missing a key piece to the puzzle. We just patiently waited for her.”