SPOKANE - Coach Al Smeenk will be the first to tell you that this year's Sunnyside Christian girls basketball team isn't the most talented bunch he's ever had. But if you want to talk about motivated and thirsty for success, Smeenk says there is no other group in the school's history that has shown such drive.
In assessing how his unheralded and unranked Lady Knights stormed past the competition at the State Class 'B' Basketball Tournament to earn the fifth place trophy, Smeenk could only marvel at what his club accomplished.
"They greatly exceeded my expectations," admitted Smeenk, in explaining how his Lady Knights won three straight games after opening the State tourney with a 69-51 loss to the eventual second place finishing Almira-Coulee-Hartline Warriors.
"All of the girls showed tremendous heart, tremendous drive," he continued.
"This was the most improved and most over-achieving group I've ever been associated with," said Smeenk, who has been at the helm of the Sunnyside Christian High School girls basketball program since its inception.
Smeenk's Lady Knights, in bringing home the fifth place trophy, had to knock off two clubs that defeated his team earlier this season. This past Friday, in the consolation semi-finals, Sunnyside Christian claimed a 57-50 victory over King's West of Bremerton, which avenged a 57-48 loss to King's West back in mid-December. Saturday at State, in the placing game for the fifth and eighth place trophies, the Lady Knights nipped the DeSales Irish, 48-45. DeSales beat Sunnyside Christian by a 62-36 margin back in mid-January.
"The heart and drive our girls had over there in Spokane, it was unbelievable," Smeenk said. "They were bound and determined they were going to play for a trophy on Saturday. Everyone on the team just did a super job."
Asked how a team without any superstars, without a girl taller than 5'8" could compete so well at State, Smeenk said everyone was assigned a job and performed it well.
"I'm a big believer in roles," he said. "By the time the playoffs rolled around, everyone had bought into that."
The embodiment of that philosophy might have been best illustrated by the play of 5'6" Amy Mensonides, 5'7" Jordan Roberts and 5'8" Tyssyna Van Wingerden-all who were asked at one time or another to battle inside the paint against much taller opponents.
"We ran into some big girls at State, and we didn't have anyone taller than 5'8" to work the post," said Smeenk. "But Amy, Jordi and Tyssi, they went in there and did what was asked of them.
"Some people when they look at a game only talk about who does the scoring. But without our post players, the girls who go inside and get the rebound, then get the ball out quickly to the wing so we can push it up the floor, we don't have that attacking offense," Smeenk said.
Another of Smeenk's girls who filled her role admirably, that of coming in off the bench to provide a spark by putting up a shot here, a shot there, was 5'8" junior Carly DeGroot. In fact, it was DeGroot who hit the game winning shot Saturday against DeSales.
With just under a minute to play and the Lady Knights down by two to the Irish, DeGroot fired up a shot from behind the 3-point arc that hit nothing but net. Ironically, it was DeGroot's only bucket of the game.
"It didn't surprise me," chuckled Smeenk. "Carly has been doing that all season. She has a knack for providing us with a lift when we need it."
After DeGroot hit the long range 3-pointer to give the Lady Knights a one-point lead, Sunnyside Christian's defense stymied the Irish down the stretch. DeSales didn't score again. Senior Hilary Hughes provided the Lady Knights with a bit of insurance when she hit two free throws with 10 seconds remaining on the clock.
Sunnyside Christian could have easily folded in Saturday's trophy round game, after DeSales opened a 13-5 first quarter lead. Instead, the Lady Knights scrapped their way back into the contest and pulled to within 23-17 at the half.
"We only shot 17 percent from the field the first half," said Smeenk, "But we were only down by six, so we felt good about that."
After intermission, the Lady Knights worked to get the ball into the hands of Hughes, Van Wingerden and senior Tami Lambrecht. The trio responded.
Hughes ripped the net for a game high 16 points. Van Wingerden chipped in 13 points, and Lambrecht connected on 3-of-5 shots from 3-point land for a 9-point effort.
The 5'8" Van Wingerden, said Smeenk, ran the floor extremely well against DeSales. By hustling out on the fastbreak, she benefited from the pinpoint passing of Hughes, who led the team with four assists.
Hughes, herself, was a dynamo on the offensive side of the court. Her 16-point performance came after dropping in a game high 21 points on Friday against King's West. Smeenk said the senior Hughes easily shot at a better than 80 percent clip from the foul line at State.
Lambrecht also provided a lot of firepower for the Lady Knights during their four games at State. The 5'4" senior's nine points against DeSales followed a 12-point performance on Friday against King's West. Overall at State, Lambrecht nailed 13 shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
Of his only two seniors on the team, Smeenk said they will be difficult to replace come next season.
"Our two senior girls really rose to the occasion at State," Smeenk said. "You just can't imagine the desire they had."
Another of the Lady Knights who more than filled the role she was asked to was 5'0" sophomore Emma Hernandez. DeSales limited the behind-the-back dribbling, drive-the-paint scoring sparkplug to four points, but the three other teams the Lady Knights faced at State didn't have an answer on how to slow her down. Friday against King's West, Hernandez dropped in 13 points, which included bombing in two treys. She scored 11 points on Thursday against Snohomish County Christian, hitting the 12-point mark in the State tournament opening game loss on Wednesday to Almira-Coulee-Hartline.
This season's Lady Knights finished their 2003-04 campaign with a record of 20-8. The fifth place trophy they brought home from Spokane with them was the seventh State trophy for the Sunnyside Christian girls basketball program. Sunnyside Christian was making its 10th appearance at the State girls hoop tourney, all under the guidance of Smeenk. Overall, the Sunnyside Christian girls basketball program is three games above .500 in State tourney games.
Friday's consolation semi-finals
Sunnyside Christian 15 19 7 16 -57
King's West 10 15 4 21 -50
Sunnyside Christian-Lambrecht 12, Hughes 21, DeGroot 2, Ty. Van Wingerden 7, Jo. Roberts 2, Hernandez 13, To. Van Wingerden 0, Mensonides 0.
King's West-Hanley 14, Mosey 3, Ross 4, K. O'Brien 19, S. O'Brien 0, Parker 2, Anderson 7, Hart 1.
Saturday's trophy round
DeSales 13 10 11 11 -45
Sunnyside Christian 5 12 17 14 -48
2-pt. FG-DeSales 11/30, SCHS 10/36. 3-pt. FG-DeSales 4/18, SCHS 5/15 (Lambrecht 3/5). FT-DeSales 11/14, SCHS 13/16. Rbds.-DeSales 33, SCHS 31 (Hughes 6, Mensonides 5).
DeSales-Wujek 14, Robison 2, Moramarco 15, Spiess 11, Rush 1, Wolfram 2.
Sunnyside Christian-Lambrecht 9, Hughes 16, DeGroot 3, Ty. Van Wingerden 13, Jo. Roberts 0, Hernandez 4, To. Van Wingerden 1, Mensonides 2.