ELMA — Early in the season, Elma girls basketball head coach Lisa Johnson was switching starters almost every game to try and find the right recipe for success.
The Eagles lost three of their first four games as the players struggled to jell. However, the answer to their problems on the court came off the hardwood.
“We started jelling as a team when we started hanging out after school,” senior Peyton Elliott said. “We are not only teammates, but we are sisters. Before every game, we go over to someone’s house and they make us pregame dinner. We’ve gone shopping together. We do everything together.”
The more the group spent time together off the court doing everything from making their own ugly Christmas sweaters to eating pregame grilled cheese, the better they played on the court.
Now, the Eagles have come together to play their best basketball at the right time. Elma (14-9) has won eight of its last 10 games and is one win away from a trip to Yakima for the state tournament. But first, the Eagles will need to make a different trip to Yakima.
Elma, the No. 16 seed, will face No. 9 seed Zillah (19-4) in a winner-to-state regional contest at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Davis High School in Yakima.
“The reality is that this is huge,” Johnson said. “It is a huge step for the program and getting back to the sweet 16, even though that isn’t technically state, you are still one of the top-16 teams in the state. For as hard as these girls have worked this year, it is pretty phenomenal. Everyone has accepted their roles and stepped up. We have a really strong bench and the whole team, as a unit, has just come together and they come in and they are finishing. We are getting the defensive stops, we are getting the boards. We are just playing tough, team basketball right now.”
Elma will need one of its best efforts of the season to defeat the Leopards. Zillah has a strong inside-outside attack led by 6-foot-2, junior post Samantha Bowman. The tall junior can drive around defenders and even hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Leopards over Granger for the South Central title last Saturday. Bowman finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds against the Spartans.
“(Bowman) has a running jumper and has some nice moves underneath,” Johnson said. “She is tough, but it isn’t like we haven’t face a tough 6-2 post in our league. We’ve had to face a lot of good posts and a lot of big posts this season, so we’ve had the practice of utilizing those defenses where you have to face guard the post.”
Bowman is far from the only weapon for the Leopards. Trista Takes Enemy is a senior who offers a mid-range threat and scored 10 points against Granger, but sophomore Callie Rae Delp adds a consistent 3-point threat. As a group, the Leopards biggest weapon may be their press defense.
“They make you probably the most uncomfortable you are going to feel in a basketball game, that is how close they are in your stuff,” Johnson said. “We are really going to have to take care of the basketball and get some stops. We have to value the ball and not turn it over and finish.”
The keys for the Eagles over the final month of the season have also been a stifling full-court defense and strong play from their posts. While Elliott led the Eagles with 16 points in their final district matchup with Hoquiam, sophomore post Molly Johnston added a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds.
While the Eagles are proud to make it to the regional round, all of the players know they came together in hopes of making another trip back to Yakima.
“(The postseason) is what we live for,” Johnson said. “It is what you work for all season. All those hard days. All those Saturday mornings that you got up. All those late night bus trips. Everything comes down to Saturday.”