Wood River High School girls' basketball coach Mendy Benson knows two things for certain about her 2010-11 Wolverine varsity that debuted its 20-game season Tuesday with a home tussle against Kimberly.
She believes Wood River has the ability and desire to qualify for February's State 4A tournament. Yet Benson also feels it will be a tremendous challenge for Wood River to earn one of the Great Basin Conference's two state tourney berths.
But former University of Oregon women's basketball captain Benson, 35, isn't one to shy away from a challenge. That's one reason she has been able in her two Wolverine seasons to turn the Hailey program around from a 5-16 first season to a 17-7 record.
"We're in a different place than we were two years ago," said Benson.
"Back then we were simply trying to win a conference game. Now we're looking for conference championship. With girls, confidence is everything. When you replace doubt, it gives you a tremendous upper hand in games."
The Hailey girls made great strides last season, snapping a five-season, 39-game conference losing streak and setting three school records: Single-season wins (17), best home record (11-1) and best defensive average (36.5 points per game).
Improving its offense by 10 points a game and shooting 61% from the free throw line, Wood River won its final 10 home games and ended up with a 6-6 road record—a sea change after going 6-51 away from home the past five seasons.
The Wolverines just barely lost a Great Basin tournament game 48-47 in overtime to Minico at Rupert last Feb. 8. A victory in that close contest would have given Wood River a shot at qualifying for the state tournament in the GBC tourney second-place game.
It was so close. But last year is history and the new season is here. Benson said, "I think our players really want to go to the state tournament. They want to give it everything they have so they'll have no regrets."
Led by juniors Kaitana Martinez and Cheyenne Swanson, Wood River has players to compete with any team, especially since three-time GBC champ Jerome (24-2, 3rd place state a second straight year, 40 consecutive home wins) has graduated conference "Player of the Year" Aubree Callen.
Jerome spanked Wood River three times by 12, 22 and 29 points last season but was the only team to really dominate the resurgent Wolverines.
Benson said, "Aubree is irreplaceable for Jerome, Minico lost five seniors and Twin Falls worries me. The thing is everyone is tough in our league. But we shouldn't have the mental disadvantages this year when we play a team like Jerome."
Worrisome for Benson is her team's depth.
The varsity now has only eight players, four seniors and four juniors. One junior guard, hard-working Lucy Paisley, was supposed to be Wood River's defensive stopper but suffered a knee injury in the Nov. 9 jamboree at Carey.
"If we have one more injury, we're in trouble," said Benson.
Defense wins championships, though, and Benson believes Wood River will continue to improve in that important area. She said, "We will be feisty and tenacious and will take a lot of pride in our defense, although I don't think we'll have the numbers to full court press all the time."
This year's WHRS varsity
Wood River brings much to the table in the backcourt and frontcourt, despite the loss of second-leading scorer Tristin Bowers, the 6.8 ppg point guard and last year's "Best Defensive Player" who moved to Utah.
Benson said, "We've taken a heavy hit in the backcourt," referring to the loss of Bowers, Brooke Bowers and Megan Morrell to moves, Alex Lindbloom and Grace Lagodich to graduation, and now Paisley.
"We're eight deep on varsity and can swing up a couple of JV kids," said Benson. "Last year we were 10 deep and I could play everybody."
Fortunately, Benson can rely upon Martinez and another Wood River veteran guard, senior Taylor Hayes. They were teammates on the Wolverine girls' soccer team that just won the school's seventh consecutive GBC tournament title and made state.
Martinez (a team-high 11.2 ppg, 483 points in 2 years, 28 double-digit games in 44 starts) is a player with tremendous vision and anticipation who is a coach on the court because of her understanding of the game.
"I expect K.T. to never leave the game," said Benson. "She is a steel trap—everything you tell her she remembers. She'll draw the best defender on the other team, so she'll be a target. If we're in a pinch I'd like to run every play through her. We'd like to get her to score and run the offense at the same time."
Realistically, other teams will make it difficult for Martinez to be involved in every half-court offensive play. That's where Hayes comes in.
She didn't play last season, but Hayes handled the point guard position as a sophomore and seems ready to step right back in—with better confidence, fitness and leadership.
"I'm incredibly amazed at how well Taylor has played, her maturity and what great shape she's in," said Benson. "In our jamboree she did a great job of taking the ball to the basket, initiating contact with the defense and getting to the foul line. And she'll have to do that for us this year."
Senior Allie Hesteness (1.9 ppg) had some excellent moments off the bench last season as a guard. Benson said, "Allie is a good team role player. She will probably guard an opposing team's best guard, and she can shoot from the outside."
Junior guard/forward Haillie Taylor didn't log much varsity time, but "she may be the most competitive girl on the team," Benson said. "The thing with girls who have played mostly JV, it takes them three to four weeks to get used to the speed of the game."
One of Wood River's strengths is depth in the post position, where Benson can summon five posts including Taylor who are 5-10 to 6-1. "We can do some damage with our size and having unselfish guards who are willing to get them the ball," said Benson.
Fourth-leading scorer Swanson (5.3 ppg) is "our most experienced player other than K.T.," Benson said. "I trust Cheyenne to make smart decisions. She's a very good post defender and does a nice job on the boards." And she can shoot free throws accurately.
By improving her consistency, 6-1 junior Haylee Thompson (5.0 ppg) should be a dominating post player, said Benson. "Haylee has gotten stronger over the summer and is motivated to play college basketball. She is a great passer from the post, too."
Senior 6-1 forward Jade Glenn "is a great player to have on your team, consistent and level-headed, a true team player. With Jade you always know what you're going to get. She sets a lot of screens for us out there."
Another senior 6-0 forward, Haylee's big sister Hunter Thompson, is "one of the hardest-working kids I've ever coached, a girl who has just made amazing progress for having started playing basketball for the first time as a freshman," Benson added.
Benson's varsity staff includes assistant coaches J.C. Nemecek and Andy Portillo.
There are 31 players in this year's program and Wood River's varsity enjoyed great success last year against its first three opponents—beating Kimberly by three points twice, downing Filer by 15 and 16, and Hillcrest by 7 and 15 points.
Junior varsity team—Head coach Kevin Stilling. Players: Mandy Kinsey, Mercedez Powell, Emmalie Dion, Lucy Paisley (varsity/JV swing player), Kennedie Howard, Hannah Belloli, Lily Richards, Cookie Benson, Elizabeth Cameron (swing player), Ashley Karst, Devan Atkinson and Favi Worthington (1 senior, 4 juniors, 6 sophs, 1 freshman).
Freshman team—Head coach Jamie King Briner. Players: Emilia Bingham, Sabrina Bourgette, Christina Contreras, Shelby Cooper, Cassidy Cooper, Kyli Frayer, Bridget Kernan, Easton Kimball and Ilse Martinez.
2010-11 WRHS GIRLS
A total 20 games on the regular-season schedule for the 2010-11 Wolverine girls; 10 home and 10 away. All home games at Wood River High School gym, Hailey. General admission $5. Wood River's home varsity/JV games are in bold type. Fourth District Great Basin Conference 4A games are marked with an asterisk (*). All home junior varsity and freshmen games start at 6 p.m. with varsity following at 7:30 p.m.
Varsity, JV, freshmen
DATE, DAY OPPONENT LOCATION
Nov. 9, Tuesday Carey/Hagerman Jamboree Carey, 6:45 p.m.
Nov. 16, Tuesday Kimberly Home, 6/7:30
Nov. 18, Thursday Filer Away, 4:30/6/7:30
Nov. 20, Saturday Hillcrest of Idaho Falls Home, 2/3:30
Nov. 23, Tuesday Mountain Home Away, 6/7:30
Nov. 30, Tuesday Mountain Home Home, 6/7:30
Dec. 2, Thursday Canyon Ridge* Home, 6/7:30
Dec. 4, Saturday Buhl Home, 2/3:30
Dec. 8, Wednesday Burley* Away, 6/7:30
Dec. 10, Friday Minico* Home, 6/7:30
Dec. 14, Tuesday Kimberly Away, 4:30/6/7:30
Dec. 16, Thursday Jerome* Away, 4:30/6/7:30
Dec. 18, Saturday Hillcrest Idaho Falls, 2/3:30
Jan. 4, Tuesday Filer Home, 6/7:30
Jan. 6, Thursday Twin Falls* Home, 6/7:30
Jan. 12, Wednesday Canyon Ridge* Twin Falls, 5/7:30
Jan. 14, Friday Burley* Home, 6/7:30
Jan. 18, Tuesday Minico* Rupert, 6/7:30
Jan. 20, Thursday Jerome* Home, 6/7:30
Jan. 25, Tuesday Twin Falls* Away, 6/7:30
Jan. 27, Thursday Buhl Away, 4:30/6/7:30
Feb. 1, Tuesday Great Basin District 4A Site of higher seed, 7:00
Feb. 11, Friday Great Basin completion Higher seed, 7:00
Feb. 17, Thursday State 4A Timberline High, Boise
Feb. 19, Saturday State 4A championship The Idaho Center, Nampa
NOTES—The 6-school Great Basin Conference 4th District (WR, Jerome, Burley, Minico, Twin Falls, Canyon Ridge) gets 2 berths in the State 4A tournament—the winner and district tournament runner-up.....In opening-round 2011 State 4A match-ups at Timberline High School in Boise, the Great Basin Conference champion plays the winner of the Feb. 12 state play-in game between the 3rd District third-place team and 6th District runner-up; and the GBC runner-up goes against the District 5 (Pocatello area) champion on the other side of the first-round bracket.....Booster athletic season tickets for all Wood River sporting events during the 2010-11 school year are available. Drop by the high school and see activities director John Rade. Senior citizens 65-and-over are admitted free.