With the regular season winding down, I thought I’d devote this edition of Post-Ups to the top-ranked teams in 3A (Cleveland) and 4A (Lynnwood).
About time, right?
I decided to take the closer look using a Q & A format with each head coach – Stephenie Wheeler-Smith at Cleveland and Everett Edwards at Lynnwood.
Some of the questions will be the same, but there is a twist or two.
First up will be Cleveland, since the Eagles are reigning 3A state champs and have beaten Lynnwood this season, 59-49 on New Year’s Day.
Q & A with Cleveland coach Stephenie Wheeler-Smith
I’ll start with some basics before jumping to the actual question/answer segment.
The Eagles have not lost to an in-state opponent over the past two seasons. Last year, they opened in the Nike Northwest Invitational in Portland and went 1-2, losing to South Medford (Oregon) and Coeur d’Alene (Idaho). Cleveland then went 26-0.
This year’s team is 14-2 with the two losses coming against in the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona, against opponents nationally ranked at the time. And both games were competitive – 63-57 against Etiwanda and 78-75 against Carondelet (both in California).
Cleveland then beat Sacramento, a 2013 state champion, 62-47 to start an 11-game win streak. The Eagles have now won 41 straight against in-state opponents.
This team has multiple weapons led by seniors Makala Roper (15.4 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals, 4 assists), MyMy Ladd (14.8 points, 8 rebounds, 6 steals, 2 assists), Alexa Mefi (7.4 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 1.4 blocks) and Asiyah Davis (5.9 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals). Two juniors are also key — Joyce Harrell (11.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Jayde Chrsitopher (5.5 points, 9.8 steals, 4 rebounds, 4 steals) along with sophomore Myla Hightower (4.5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals).
The lightning-quick Eagles average 73 points (shooting nearly 48 percent from the field) and 24 steals per game.
And let me link you to a story I wrote last season on Stephenie and her husband, Derrick, her assistant coach, which you can read here. Their son, Judah, was born on May 21.
She balances family and coaching while working fulltime at Boeing, recently moving into a new position as acting manager for the AOG (Aircraft-on-Ground) Group.
“It’s crazy,” she admits of the schedule. So let’s start there.
Q – What’s it been like juggling everything?
A – It’s been a lot, a lot. Derrick and I are an amazing team. I couldn’t have asked for a better husband and friend and partner in what we do. He’s an amazing father. He’s so in-tune with his little boy. He’s a great dad. But we’ve balanced this together….Him and our family have been amazing help for our success in everything that we’ve been doing.
Q – You have four seniors on this team –Roper, Ladd, Mefi and Davis, all four-year veterans. What can you say about them?
A – They haven’t lost a game at home since they’ve been Cleveland Eagles. They are extremely hard working and competitive and they just want to be the best, and they love each other. They’re a really close-knit group.
Q – They’ve had quite a run. Their freshman year, they lost in the regional round. They finished third at state in 2011-12, then won the title last year. When did you know this was a special group?
A – I knew the day we all sat in the field, in the summer, that they were going to be a special group and do great things while they were at Cleveland. They were in that field freshly out of middle school ready to go to work, working out and going hard and making a commitment to be the best.
Q – Who is the unsung hero of the team and why?
A – Alexa Mefi. She just does so many of the intangibles. Colleges coaches would describe her as a glue kid, meaning she does so many things to cause the team to stay together, and doesn’t always get all the glory because of that. She’s tough as nails and kids who play against her are intimidated.
Q – You celebrate Senior Night on Feb. 7. What’s that going to be like for you?
A – It’s going to be a wealth of emotion and we’re going to do something really special for them and it’s going to be a great night for them. They are a special group of four and they all have a really special place in our hearts and they’re really a group that we’ve put Cleveland on the map with. They’ve been steady. They’ve learned a lot, they’ve grown a lot, they’re veterans in this high-school basketball game. It’s really cool to celebrate them this year.
Q – How would you describe the team’s style on the court?
A – I would characterize them as lion chasers. They chase lions. They’re not afraid. They work their butts off and they rise to challenges.
Q – You won Cleveland’s first state championship in 2009-10 with Cheyenne Wilson, who went on to play at Utah. But top to bottom is this your best team ever?
A – I don’t know. It could very well be our best team, but I can’t say that. That’s a hard question. They’re all just very different. I will say this is probably our quickest team, one through five. Team’s can’t match up with it and they don’t know how to handle the pressure this team brings because of their quickness.
Q – How did you benefit from those early games in Arizona?
A – We played teams that were not only competitive, but they had 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, and you know how tall we are, or aren’t (Harrell is the only 6-footer at 6-1). And we competed and we gave teams a difficult team. The two teams that we played that were ranked nationally we were in those games and just couldn’t pull it out in the end. We were just figuring out who was that person who was going to step up in those clutch moments. We lost two close ones to two very good teams, then beat the state champion from Sacramento handily, and they had a 6-2 girl (Ayanna Edwards) going to Arizona State. We saw some really good talent and that was really good for us. It gave us a good gage for where we are.
Q – How do the girls deal with all of the expectations and pressure? You call them lion chasers, but all other teams are chasing you guys.
A – That’s the trick. Helping them see that they are the ones that need to be the chasers, because of the target that is on their back. They really know who they are and they really live into that. And they’re still growing. They’ve committed themselves to grow every day, which is huge because they could very well just sit and chill and rest on their laurels, but every day they come in and work hard and they’re growing.
Q – You’ve had very few competitive games overall. How do you keep your focus as a team and continue to try to get better?
A – Right now what we’ve been focusing on is playing every game like it’s a championship game and mentally trying to get them to a place where they understand that every game that we play if is a present, a gift, and that tomorrow’s not promised and we can’t be looking ahead. We have to play now. It’s really difficult to get them up and to inspire them in different ways so we’ve just been creative, especially when you’re playing teams that you’re blowing out….We have to be respectful to the game of basketball.
Q – Lastly, what would you say about Lynnwood?
A – I think they have really good chemistry and each kid on their team knows their role and they live into it, and they’re well-coached. They know what they’re running when they’re running it, and the all seem to get on the same page quickly. Not to mention they’ve got a great point guard (senior Jasmin Edwards) leading them.
Q & A with Lynnwood coach Everett Edwards
The 16-1 Royals, who owe that one loss to Cleveland (in case you skipped ahead) started the season ranked No. 13 nationally by USA Today, then dropped out. They are back this week at No. 24.
Their 76-48 victory over Edmonds-Woodway last night clinched a fourth straight WesCo South championship (the first two were in 3A – and Lynnwood is dropping back to 3A this next school year).
The school has never won a state basketball title – girls or boys. The only team championships have come in cross country and track (at least from what I can tell on the WIAA website).
Lynnwood was considered a contender for the 4A title last season, then lost to Kentwood in the regional round, 61-60 in double-overtime, to finish 22-2. Two seniors started on that squad, but the Royals picked up a valuable piece to the puzzle this season in 5-10 junior Monty Cooper, who transferred from Archbishop Murphy.
Edwards has two daughters on the team – Jasmin, a senior, and Jordyn, a sophomore. I got the chance to write about the family last season, and you can read that piece here.
Mikayla Pivec, a 5-10 soph, leads the team in scoring (15.2) and rebounding (14.3) and also averages 3.4 assists and 3.0 steals per game. Jasmin Edwards (5-5 PG) is next at 10.6 points (plus 3.9 assists, 2.9 steals), followed by 5-10 Jordyn Edwards (9.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.4 steals), Cooper (8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds) and 6-foot frosh Kelsey Rogers (7.5 points, 3.9 rebounds).
Lynnwood averages better than 61 points per game and regularly wins by 20 or more.
Q – How did your team benefit from playing Cleveland?
A – That game basically exposed some adjustments we needed to make on the offensive end. Going up against that type of pressure and that type of quickness, I think we were trying to hard to play one on one and we kind of got away from playing team basketball. It kind of confirmed we must continue to improve on the offensive end and continue to trust the play that we’re running and trust each other, because we’re kind of a unique team in that we have five kids that can play. They can all pass and shoot and drive and we just needed to work on our overall team chemistry and keep working to get the best shot that we can get, instead of trying to force the action. In that game we were trying a little bit too hard to do good things and we didn’t flow well….That was truly like a district championship or regional type of game .Ultimately I think it’s going to help to have us better prepared for our district tournament and hopefully, if we make it through, for that regional game.
Q – Can you talk a little more about your high-octane offense?
A – We are up-tempo on the offensive and defensive end of the court, but at the same time we are learning that if we don’t have transition opportunities, we want to work the shot clock and get the best shot we can possibly get. We will pressure most every team in the full court and we are trying to run them, old-school, Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson, show-time guy. I like trying to get shots up in five to seven seconds, if we can get that done. But the part I really enjoy is that if we don’t get any transition opportunities, is that we’re very fortunate to have skilled kids on our team that can all dribble, pass and shoot the ball. It’s just really fun to coach.
Q – What are your thoughts on freshman Kelsey Rogers?
A – It’s been great in that she hasn’t had to have the weight of the world on her shoulders because we have a good team, but it’s nice to have someone inside to give us a shot-blocking presence. Her footwork for a freshman, catching the ball in the block, and she has great touch from 15 feet, she is going to be a great player for us, not only this year but in years to come.
Q – Who gets your vote as the team’s unsung hero?
A – It would have to be Dani Hayes. She is a legit 5-foot-3, she’s not a tall girl, but she just plays tremendous defense in terms of her toughness and grit….She’s very unselfish and doesn’t score much, but with our style of play defensively, she is just a major part because it allows us to keep up the pressure as we get through our rotations. It’s big to try to have fresh legs and if you’re going to pressure teams you’ve got to have a bench and she’s a perfect fit for my style of play of wanting to play that pressure defense.
Q – What’s it like coaching your daughters again this season, knowing it’s the last time with Jasmin, who will go on to play at Central Washington?
A – It’s been very fun for me as a coach to able to be part of my daughters’ lives in that way. The fact that the season has gone by so fast, it’s been kind of sad at the same time because I miss her already, in terms of what she brings not only to our team but by just being a great kid. She’s a 4-point student and is a leader in the community. She has just been a really great kid. It’s been fun and exciting and all that stuff, but at the same time it’s been kind of sad. I’ve been cherishing every moment and every game and every practice because everything is the last time we’ll be together, at least in this form, as a coach and player. It’s been a great four years.
Q – What about those national rankings you’ve been in and out of, and now back in?
A – I was and is pretty cool, but all it does is put a target on our back. It really didn’tt matter to us to no longer be ranked as I figured it was a “moment in time” – cool to see, but it really didn’t matter, with our hopes of making it to Tacoma and contending to win state. After we lost to Cleveland, it was back to reality in realizing that we have to play our best in big games if we truly want to accomplish our goals.
Q – How are the girls handling all of the hype that goes with that kind of recognition?
A – It helps to prepare us for the district and regional tournaments, because we’re getting everybody’s best shot. Edmonds-Woodway was bringing the thunder last night and we were kind of stressed because we were only up 10, and we’re used to being up more. Being No. 1 is great, getting the recognition for our team and our school, but we talk about it all of the time that you can be the No. 1 seed, but if you lose two games in that district tournament, your season is over. We are very humble with the idea that we’re getting recognition, but if we aren’t playing right and we let that stuff go to our head, hey there are good teams that our out there that have seniors as well and they want to win as well. We’re just trying to use it as motivation, understanding that we are going to get team’s best efforts and we have to play our best overall team basketball in order to play at a high level.
Q – You’ve had some games where you’ve won by 40 and 50 points. What’s the approach is those?
A – We have a lot of kids that return from the Kentwood loss last year and that was a devastating loss for us. We had high hopes and high expectations. That just let us know that every practice and every game, we need to maximize every single minute in hopes of getting back to that regional game….Every game that we play we want to get better, with the idea that the season is going by fast and we have to make the most of every moment….In those (lopsided) games we work on our stuff and try to run it perfectly if we can.
Q – How much motivation did that season-ending loss to Kentwood give this team?
A – It’s the ultimate motivator in that we’ve had very good teams the last three years….We’ve had very good regular seasons, but it’s a motivator to have this team make the top eight and make it to the Tacoma Dome. That being said, we’re very humble and we understand there’s no guarantees that we’ll even make it out of our district tournament if we’re not playing well. It is a motivator to have our team and our program and our school to hopefully get to that regional game and hopefully through that regional game, just to experience the Tacoma Dome. Just to get that chance, that’s all we’re looking for. And if we get there, who knows what will happen. We just want to fight to get that opportunity.
Q – Is this Lynnwood’s best team in your seven seasons as head coach?
A – It is my best team in terms of the overall pieces of speed and quickness and the ability to shoot the ball and pass the ball.
Q – Lastly, your thoughts on Cleveland?
A – Man, they play their style very well. They really compliment each other with not only their guard play, but Jayda Christopher is a great point guard. She is a very good passer and obviously they have the shooter with Makala Roper and they have very good rebounders and post presence. They are truly a true team in that they don’t really have any weaknesses….And the bottom line for them is they just play great defense and that style of play is very difficult to prepare for. Their style of play reminds me a little of how we play in that we tend to make teams a little bit uncomfortable and we tend to be able to kind of wear teams down a little bit. It was good for us to have the shoe on the other foot and learn how to deal with the adversity of teams taking you out of the things you want to do.