Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pack the gym once more for WRHS girls

Hurray for the Wood River High School girls' basketball team!

Over the last two months, the Wood River community has coalesced around the success of coach Mendy Benson's Wolverine girls.

Two packed houses greeted Wood River's two home-district tournament games last week, which resulted in two thrilling come-from-behind victories.

The knowledgeable Hailey fans, hungry for a winning basketball team after many lean winters in the gym, have gotten into the style of Wood River's ferocious team defense.

Saturday's victory over Twin Falls was the team's 18th of the season, a school record, and it secured only the second state tournament berth in the program's 36-year history.

Businesses have jumped at the chance to help out. Ketchum's Smith Sport Optics has donated tickets for all high school and middle school students attending another home game on Thursday.

It's an interesting group of girls.

The second-leading scorer and top rebounder, Haylee Thompson, is the placekicker on the school's football team, with a knack for calmly booting game-winning extra points as the boys are rushing her with abandon.

Another top rebounder, Cheyenne Swanson, is the state discus champion. A valued "sixth man," Haillie Taylor, is one of the best all-around cowgirls on the high school rodeo circuit.

Two starting senior guards are smallish at 5-3, but they bring plenty to the table.

One, Taylor Hayes, didn't even play basketball last year while she was focusing on becoming the toughest defender on the school's state tournament soccer team. She brings the same toughness to the basketball court, and then runs up into the bleachers to tearfully hug her father after a victory.

The other, Allie Hesteness, is a quiet leader and a coach's trump card—a player who is finally coming into her own during her senior year.

The ultimate team player is the team's best player, Kaitana Martinez. In all the years of fielding girls' athletic teams, Wood River has never seen an athlete with such skills who plays the game with such pure joy. She's the rare kind of student-athlete who routinely does her homework in the bleachers while waiting for her game to start. She's nice to everyone because that's the way she is. But she plays to win. By leading Wood River in its fourth-quarter rally against Twin Falls Saturday, Martinez did something that has never been done before—be the key player, shortstop, leadoff hitter, midfielder and star point guard on three consecutive Wolverine state tournament teams—softball, soccer and basketball.

The coaching staff is a keeper, more focused on supporting and teaching the girls than making a big sideshow of itself during games. Assistant J.C. Nemecek is the kindly English teacher who has coached in 604 high school basketball games.

Assistant coach Andy Portillo makes sure to bring his sixth-grade son, Elliott, who sings a captivating national anthem before games to disarm everybody—the crowd, officials and opposing players alike.

Assistant coach Kevin Stilling is coach Benson's husband, filling in the blanks when she is occupied elsewhere. During games, their 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter is always somewhere in the gym building, being carefully tended.

As for Benson herself, she's been known to scold the players when they need it during timeouts. Otherwise, she's the most unobtrusive former 6-foot post player and captain of the University of Oregon women's team that you'll ever see. She doesn't ride the officials for bad calls—as she puts it, she's too busy "trying to fix" what's going on with her own team during a game and looking ahead.

Wood River has one more home game, Thursday's district championship and state-seeding game in Hailey. It's one more opportunity to pack the gym and enjoy a great squad of young women.

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