The team that captured the hearts of the Wood River Valley community this winter played its heart out and left everything on the floor Thursday through Saturday at the State 4A girls' basketball tournament in Boise and Nampa.
Wood River (21-3) completed a memorable Cinderella season by winning its first-ever games at a state tournament and making it all the way to Saturday's championship contest at The Idaho Center in Nampa—where the Wolverines scraped, clawed and battled to the end but fell 47-33 to Middleton (24-2).
Besides earning the state second-place trophy, Wood River hoisted the State 4A Sportsmanship Award in only its second trip to the state tournament in 36 seasons. The Hailey girls equaled Wood River's best ever finish at state, second place in 1974 by coach Fred Trenkle's Wolverine boys.
And junior guard Kaitana Martinez became Wood River's all-time single-season scoring leader with 408 points (17.0 ppg) by making an old-fashioned 3-point play in the second quarter of Saturday's championship game. The old record of 403 points was set by Natalie Green as a Hailey junior in 2003.
Martinez and junior post Haylee Thompson (285 points season, 11.9 ppg) were the second- and third-leading scorers among State 4A tournament girls last weekend with 46 and 40 points respectively. They accounted for 68% of Hailey's points in three state games.
And let's not forget Wood River Middle School sixth-grader Elliot Portillo, 11, who sang the national anthem so well at both Friday's semi-final game and before Saturday's 4A championship game.
Poised and proud, Portillo strode to the center of the basketball floor at The Idaho Center and made the big crowd proud with his stirring rendition. The Wolverine girls gave him a collective hug afterward.
It was a team effort all the way through for coach Mendy Benson's team. Wolverine players more than once thanked the community for its support. The community responded in kind, lighting up the gym with chants of "DEE-fense" in Thursday and Friday's preliminary state games.
Wood River, starting strong and building healthy halftime leads, defeated Mountain Home 48-43 Thursday and Bishop Kelly of Boise 46-36 Friday for their seventh and eighth consecutive wins. Meanwhile, coach Andy Jones' Middleton squad ended Rigby's unbeaten boast 37-27 Thursday and raced past Twin Falls 52-35 Friday.
The contrasts in state experience between Wood River and Middleton were striking.
Middleton's Vikings finished the season with a 23-game winning streak and won its second straight state championship and third in four years. During that four-year stretch, the Vikings boasted a 91-14 record (11-1 at state) compared to Wood River's 45-44. Middleton has now won five straight State 4A trophies and has been to state eight consecutive years.
Wood River was 5-16 two years ago, and 2-18 in 2007 when Middleton won its first state title over Bishop Kelly. In the program's history, there have been only nine winning seasons, two coming in the last two seasons under third-year coach Benson (43-26). The only Wood River state visit was in 2004, a 0-2 trip in State 3A.
But the 2011 Wolverines led by their indomitable inside-outside tandem of Martinez and Thompson played Middleton extremely tough before tiring at the end of the title game.
Don't think about the 14-point margin that separated the two teams at the final buzzer.
Remember, instead, that Wood River shot 47% and trailed just 22-21 at halftime.
Remember that, despite making no field goals in an ice-cold third quarter, the resilent Wolverines were still within a bucket, behind 32-30, with less than five minutes to play. That's when Middleton threw down a withering 13-0 run.
Middleton's in-your-face defense and quickness at the perimeter just wore down the Wolverines. Martinez played all 96 minutes at state except for 52 seconds. She was on the floor every second for the final two games. Her fellow guards Allie Hesteness and Taylor Hayes played 85% and 88% of the games, respectively.
The weariness didn't show until Middleton cranked up the defensive pressure in the second half—when Wood River shot 14% from the field.
The Vikings (10 steals) ended up out-rebounding Wood River 33-28, and the Wolverines had 15 turnovers to Middleton's eight. Five Vikings scored eight or more points led by 5-10 senior forward Madeline Laan (13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals).
Martinez (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists) didn't score a field goal after half and was 4-for-14 from the field, 0-for-7 from 3-point range. Thompson (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Allie Hesteness (5 points) chipped in. The Wolverines couldn't find a way to get junior forward Cheyenne Swanson (6 rebounds) into the flow.
Benson said, "I thought we did a great job against Middleton's man defense in the first half. Every piece of information we gathered (and we gathered quite a bit) said that Middleton would play a stifling man-to-man on us the entire game and most likely press us either 1-2-1-1 or full court man especially after made free throws.
"Well, they didn't press us at all which is a tribute to KT and our girls, and we did such a great job against their man that they switched to zone at half.
"We worked on zone our three days of practice leading up to the tournament preparing for Mt. Home, but not the day of the game against Middleton. I thought we just didn't run our zone offense very well which was a major factor in the loss."
The coach added, "I really think we've been experiencing the third quarter blues all season. We've tried a variety of things to ameliorate the situation obviously to no avail.
"Something that's hard for me is when we're down at half, I make adjustments and change things up. When you are playing well, you have to pull out the crystal ball and figure out what they are going to do and then respond. I predicted some adjustments. I didn't predict a zone defense which I don't think Middleton had played one possession all season."
"Often times when you play a team that is from top to bottom more athletic than you are, you have to work twice as hard to stay with them. Then, often in the second half (and in our case I think it was just the last four minutes) since we've played twice as hard to stay with them, they just have more energy to finish.
"I haven't watched the film yet so it's all pretty much a blur, but I think we just stopped doing our jobs defensively and couldn't put the ball in the basket."
Two victories at the state meet
The flow favored the Wolverines during their first two games at Timberline High.
Friday against Bishop Kelly, Thompson rebounded from a sub-par five-point outing against Mountain Home with a season-best 23 points in the 10-point win over Bishop Kelly. Thompson (9-for-13 field, 5-for-7 free throws) had 15 of those points helping Wood River to an astounding 28-11 lead at half.
Benson said, "When Haylee has early success in a game, it helps her mentally. What people don't realize sometimes is what a tremendous competitor Haylee is. If she has a bad game, we've come to expect her to play well in her next game, and she always seems to do it."
In Thursday's debut, Hesteness lit it up with a career-best 14 points including three 3-pointers in the 48-43 victory over Mountain Home. Martinez (19 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals) enjoyed her best game at state. Swanson (3 points, 8 rebounds) was a factor. So was Hayes (5 points, 3 assists).
Benson said about this year's squad, "How proud I am of this team is difficult to put into words. They met and exceeded my expectations so many times it's hard to count them all!
"Of course I'm tremendously proud of our success at state and for making a name for ourselves. But even more important to me is that these girls take care of business on and off the court and most importantly in the classroom. Our team GPA was a 3.56 this season and it really is the first time in 12 years of coaching that I believe all of my girls truly followed the code of conduct.
"My girls did everything I asked them to do, and then gave me a little extra and found ways to win this season both as basketball players and as young women.
"My favorite moment and really one of the most rewarding was in the locker room after we lost when we were deciding what to do after the game. Haylee Thompson said, 'I don't really care what we do, I just want to spend more time with you guys.' That sealed it for me that all this talk about being a family wasn't really talk, and that after all the time we've spent together they really came together and were each other's family."
In other state finals:
The Dietrich Blue Devils (23-2) won state for the first time since 1999 with a 55-51 triple overtime victory over two-time defending champion Richfield (19-6) in the 1A Division 2 championship; and Lapwai (22-3) took its second 1A Division 1 title in three years 61-25 over defending champion Clearwater Valley (21-5);
In a northern Idaho match-up for the State 5A championship, Lewiston (22-3) won its first championship since 1976 by a 43-39 score over three-time defending champion Coeur d'Alene (20-6); and Sugar-Salem of Sugar City needed overtime to beat Timberlake 48-44 in the State 3A final. It was Sugar-Salem's third championship in the last five years;
Grangeville (14-7) was the State 2A champion 48-44 over Kamiah (15-10). It was Grangeville's fourth title in eight years, seventh overall.
Normally powerful at the state tournament held in their own backyard, Treasure Valley 3rd District girls' teams with the exception of Middleton faltered at state with a 12-31 record, and that includes Middleton's 3-0 mark for the 4A title.
The Wood River team banquet is scheduled for Thursday, March 3 at 6:30 p.m.
Final WRHS statistics:
Overall record: WR 21-3 (12-0 home, 9-3 away). Offense: 1151 points (48.0 ppg). Defense: 914 points (38.1 ppg). Close games: 8-2 in games settled by 7 points or fewer. Individual scoring: Kaitana Martinez 408 points (17.0 ppg), 22 double figures; Haylee Thompson 285 (11.9 ppg), 19 double figures; Cheyenne Swanson 129 (5.4 ppg); Allie Hesteness 124 (5.2 ppg); Taylor Hayes 109 (4.5 ppg); Haillie Taylor 50 (2.1 ppg); Jade Glenn 29; Hunter Thompson 13; Cookie Benson 4. 3-pointers (58): Martinez 32, Hesteness 21, Taylor 3, Hayes 1, Swanson 1.
WOLVERINE STATE NOTES—Wood River athletic director John Rade proudly received the State 4A Sportsmanship Award on behalf of the Hailey school, at halftime of Saturday's championship game. It was Wood River's first state sportsmanship award for girls' basketball. Schools are judged on their cheerleaders, administrators, cheering section (student body and adult fans), and team and coach (respect for flag, opponents and officials) and attitude displayed throughout games. Many Wood River fans and a strong contingent of Blaine County School District personnel braved the Presidents' Day weekend snowstorms to make trips to Boise—some of them making round trips on successive days to watch the team......
National anthem singer Elliot Portillo and his older brother Logan Portillo, who will be a Wood River High School freshman next year, were great to have on the bench during the state tournament, coach Benson said. She said, "They are the children of our awesome volunteer assistant coach Andy Portillo's children. The boys came up with him for the experience and offered to do anything we needed to help out......Benson had the support of her family as well at state. She said, "My mom and step-father are from Lake Havasu City, Arizona in the winter and my sister Kara Bullock and her son Erickson came from Atlanta, Ga......Benson's daughter with husband and assistant coach Kevin Stilling Tobie is now 21 months old and can say "Go Wobereens."
Coach Fred Trenkle's second Wood River boys' team that finished second at state in 1974 finished the season 19-7, including early state wins over Snake River 52-50 and Post Falls 63-49. In the championship game at Boise's Capital High School, Grangeville defeated Wood River 59-52......Wood River basketball teams have been to state tournaments 10 times (8 boys, 2 girls)......Trenkle guided two Wolverine boys teams to state (1974, 1975) and coach Phil Homer took the 1970 boys' team to state. Both Trenkle and former high school principal and superintendent Homer attended all three girls' games last weekend, as did a strong contingent of Hailey hoops fans.
Sun Valley's Don Shirey was one of 24 officials named to this year's state girls' basketball tournaments—and he was assigned two of the biggest games. Shirey officiated Saturday's State 5A championship game won by Lewiston over Coeur d'Alene. He also did Thursday's 37-27 Middleton win over Rigby in the first round of the State 4A tournament.....
Junior Haylee Thompson's 285 points moved her into sixth place on the all-time WRHS single-season scoring list. With 404 points in 48 varsity games, Thompson (8.4 ppg) has a chance with another solid season to move into the top five of all-time Wood River scorers....
Thompson was the third-leading scorer in the State 4A ranks with 40 points, or 13.3 ppg. Her season-best 23 points against Bishop Kelly was the second-best individual game in the 4A state meet, behind the 25 points that Mountain Home's Dakota Barrie tallied in Friday's 51-50 overtime loss to Moscow. Barrie thought she had won the game against Moscow when she made two free throws with three seconds left, but Moscow's 5-6 junior guard Bailee Olmstead buried a 45-foot buzzer-beater lifting the Bears to the consolation game......
Martinez was the second-highest state scorer with 46 points (15.3 ppg), behind only Moscow's 6-0 junior post Abi Quinnett (52 points, 17.3 ppg).....For the three state games, Martinez shot 12-of-29 (41%), 3-of-13 from 3-point range (23%), 19-of-25 from the free throw line (76%), with 46 points, 20 rebounds, 8 steals and 13 assists. Thompson shot 16-of-29 from the field (55%), 8-for-14 from the free throw line (57%), with 40 points, 24 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists.....Wood River for three state games shot 41-of-108 from the field (38%), but did much better in the first halves (27-of-57, 47%).....
One big factor in the late-season Wolverine success was the team's ability to go to the free throw line with more frequency than opponents. Last season, the Wolverines were outscored 150-115 at the free throw line in their last 14 games. They went 8-6 in those games. This season, they outscored foes 157-122 at the line in the last 14 games—and went 12-2.....For the 2010-11 season, Wood River shot 249-391 (64%) at the line and opponents 223-362 (62%). Last season the Wolverines shot 223-366 (61%) compared to 240-398 (60%) for foes....
Wood River coach Mendy Benson, 35, must have been having a few flashbacks when her Cinderella Wolverines made Saturday's State 4A title game. Twenty years ago, in 1991, Benson was a member of the Kenai Central girls' basketball team that won the Alaska state championship in a big upset. Benson was a state freestyle swimming champion during her 1989-93 high school days growing up near Anchorage. She graduated from the University of Oregon in 1998, where she captained the women's basketball team, and first coached preps at Chapparal High School in Parker, Colo. in 2000. She came to Wood River after coaching at Crystal Lake (Ill.) Central High School....Benson was one of three female head coaches out of the eight State 4A teams. The others were Robin Barnes of Moscow and Nancy Jones of third-place Twin Falls. An assistant coach for Jones was Trudy Weaver, a former Wood River High School student-athlete....
Senior Allie Hesteness said during the homestretch of the season that Wood River didn't seem to play well in the third quarter. Indeed, in the team's six post-season games, opponents outscored Wood River 76-35 in the third periods.......But the Wolverines did great taking halftime leads. They led at halftime in 19 of their 24 games, with one tie. In the four games they trailed at halftime, the Wolverines lost all three of their games—40-33 at Jerome, 46-44 at Minico and 47-33 in the championship game to Middleton. They won once after trailing at halftime, 37-36 over Jerome Jan. 20 at home breaking a long winless drought against Tiger girls' teams.
Wood River dominated the fourth quarters in its final 10 games through the Great Basin Conference tournament, outscoring foes 149-90 in the final eight minutes of games. But the stiffer competition and weariness showed in the fourth quarters at state, as opponents outscored Wood River 49-39.......The Wolverine guards carried the greatest load of playing time and wore down noticeably against Middleton's furious defense. Kaitana Martinez played 95 of a possible 96 minutes at state, Taylor Hayes 84 of 96 minutes and Allie Hesteness 82 of 96 minutes.
In the crowd wearing a Middleton Vikings sweatshirt Saturday was Bellevue's Dale Karst, who settled in Middleton years ago and at one time coached the boys' basketball team there. Karst played a very similar role as Kaitana Martinez during his 1983-85 playing career at Hailey's Wood River High School. As a senior in 1985 for coach Dick Richel and assistant coach Jerry Jaques, point guard and co-captain Karst made first-team All-State in the A-2 class with a 16.2 ppg average plus 8.1 assists and 5.2 steals per game. That team finished with a 16-6 record. Karst remains the third-leading career scorer for Wood River with 872 points and 60 3-pointers, behind Brad Jaques (1,261 points, 18.0 ppg career) and Brian Homer (1,051 points, 14.8 ppg, 113 3-pointers). His career coincided with the beginning of the 3-point shooting era in 1983-84. During Karst's playing years at Wood River, the Wolverine girls' basketball teams had a 17-39 record for coach Patrick Shannon.
Wood River had never won a girls' game at state, having lost to eventual State 3A champion Marsh Valley 55-53 and to Salmon 47-46 during the 2004 state meet at Bishop Kelly. That was the year the Wolverines had three players average double figures—Natalie Green, Jessica King and Emily Smith.....
Historically, Wood River never had much success with its three state opponents. Wolverine teams were 1-17 against Mountain Home, 3-8 against Middleton and 0-1 against Bishop Kelly. That one loss to Bishop Kelly came in 1980, by a 69-54 score in a one-game state play-in game at Mountain Home after coach Terry Tracy's Wolverines (11-9) captured their first-ever district title 45-22 over host Buhl. Members of that team included Lisa Atkinson, Corky Branen, Denise Haynes and Pam Peterson.
In 36 seasons of girls' basketball, Wood River has only had nine winning campaigns—but seven of them have come in the last 12 years starting with now-assistant coach and then-varsity coach J.C. Nemecek's last Wolverine squad, 14-10 in 2000.....Wood River's all-time record since 1976 is 244-485 (.335 winning percentage). This year's 21-3 team had a .875 winning percentage.