Unheralded Monte girls set sights on state

In each of the past six years, Montesano’s girls basketball team has qualified for regional competition.

This year’s appearance, however, was one that many didn’t see coming.

Seemingly ravaged by graduation losses, the Bulldog girls exceeded expectations by earning District IV’s second and final regional berth with an upset win over Elma last Saturday.

Montesano (17-7) will face Freeman (14-9) in a regional 1A contest scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Tumwater High School. With both teams in the single-elimination phase of the draw, only the winner will advance to the state tourney proper beginning Feb. 28 in Yakima. The loser is out.

The Bulldogs graduated all five starters from a team that went unbeaten in Evergreen 1A League play for four consecutive seasons (2014-17). Guard Lexi Lovell, now a junior, was the only returnee to see extensive action as a reserve.

That led many observers to rank Montesano among the also-rans in the Evergreen 1A League. As it developed, however, the Bulldogs wound up sharing the league title with Elma.

“We were coming into the season as underdogs. It was a good motivator for us,” Lovell said.

Monte coach Julie Graves, who liked her team’s athleticism and work ethic, was also a believer from the beginning.

“I felt like we had the pieces. It was a question of putting them together,” Graves noted. “The girls we had are competitive and athletic. They came to practice with a purpose every day. The kids really bought into the team concept. They believe in each other. Another key to their success is they always seem to be having fun, whether it is on or off the court.”

Team chemistry, while now strong, took some time to build due to a lack of familiarity.

“At the beginning of the season, because we had so many new (varsity) players, it took some games and a lot practices to come together and click,” senior forward Samantha Stanfield said. “Our team was able to come together.”

In some respects, Stanfield could be classified as among the newcomers. She skipped her junior year to concentrate on softball. The ace pitcher on Monte’s state championship softball team last spring, she signed with Central Washington University and returned to the basketball program this season.

“I missed it,” she said.

Although the Bulldogs answered a few questions by winning seven of their first eight games, junior guard Katie Granstrom believes the turning point of the season was a 45-37 win over league favorite Elma in January. Although the Eagles later avenged that defeat, Granstrom said the first victory boosted the team’s confidence considerably.

Zoe Hutchings, Monte’s 6-foot-2 sophomore center, and freshman forward Zoee Lisherness emerged as the team’s leading scorers. But the Bulldogs are more balanced this season than in the past and have continued their tradition of strong defense.

One tradition the Bulldogs will attempt to break is a lack of regional success. Frequently drawing high-ranked opponents, they’ve gone 0-5 in regional competition. Even last year, when they were guaranteed a state appearance after being seeded into the double-elimination bracket, they lost at regionals to Okanogan.

Freeman was a state girls power in the early part of the decade, winning consecutive state championships in 2010-11 and finishing second in 2012. The Scotties from southeast of Spokane, however, haven’t qualified for state since 2014.

Very young (with only one senior and one junior), Freeman possesses decent size with 6-foot and 5-11 posts. The Scotties have specialized in low-scoring contests, frequently limiting the opposition to 40 points or less.

Their leading scorers, freshman guard Anna Chisholm and sophomore post CarolAnn Edwards, average barely seven points per contest.

“We need to be able to handle their pressure and keep the turnovers down,” Graves said. “We need to not give up second-chance points and we need to make free throws.”