After unique offseason, Eagles still contending with whole new teamFeb 08, 2021 11:10AM ● By Travis Barton
Sophomore Tina Njike is on a tear this season averaging a double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds per game. Njike even had a four game stretch where she averaged 12 blocks per game and had three triple doubles this year that included blocks. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Travis Barton | [email protected]
Entering the season with zero returning starters and eight departed seniors, you could forgive the Skyline girls basketball team for needing time to gel. Throw in an offseason pandemic and an almost entirely new coaching staff and you might even start to lower expectations.
Not for this team.
With five new starters and only a few who played varsity last year, the Eagles went 5-1 in preseason before starting region 5-1 as well. At press deadline, they were 10-2, tied for first in region and No. 5 in the RPI.
“I knew we had a talented team,” said head coach Sam White, now in his third year leading the program. “But I just figured with lack of practice and time to get to know each other…I didn't know how we were going to mesh, but we came out really strong.”
The team’s offseason didn’t go as planned. Its banquet last year happened on a Monday in March, that Friday the schools shut down, eventually for the rest of the school year. Its spring league was canceled. The summer camp at Dixie State, a time the girls rely on to build camaraderie, was also canceled. Open gyms in the summer were limited to primarily skill work. Besides White, the team also had a whole new coaching staff as well, one that includes hall of famer Natalie Williams.
The girls were able play in a fall league to give them a starting point, but then the opening of the season was delayed two weeks. For senior captains Grace Marsh and Maddie Bell, it made the team aspect that much harder.
“This year was, ‘OK here’s tryouts, here’s practice, go!’” Marsh said.
She had to take “every second” she could to get to know her teammates. Typically in years past that meant going to see a movie or have dinner at someone’s house. So they had to find other ways, like sitting 6-feet apart at a park with their own dinners.
“Obviously we can do that under normal circumstances but his year everything's just so different so we had to make the best of it,” Marsh said.
Marsh and Bell, the only two seniors on the roster, attributed the team’s early success to a trust in each other, knowing they have the talent, but it means nothing without the team.
“This is one of the least selfish teams I’ve ever played with,” Bell said. “That’s been great for us this season.”
And it’s a season based on a new cast of characters, with Bell, Marsh and sophomore Tina Njike as a few of the only returning contributors. Add in four new freshmen getting playing time and the roster has a different look. While they relied on speedy guards, three-point shooting and an inside presence a year ago, Bell said they have a different talent this year. The girls may employ the same style of play, but with a “really dominant post” player in Njike, Bell said they can adjust to incorporate her more.
White said he knew Marsh would be ready, that Bell would step up, but Njike made “the biggest leap.”
“I don't think anyone in the state has had the improvement she's had,” he said. “She’s come back a different player, worked with a trainer and Natalie [Williams] and her club team. She's just gone to another level, it's been fun to see.”
That level means averaging a double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds per game. She’s had three games with a triple-double that included blocks. She even had a four-game stretch where she averaged 12 blocks per game.
“She's not only doing stuff on the offensive end, she's making it hard for them on defense too,” White said.
Though White is aware teams will probably double and triple team her, doing so would come at the peril of open three-point shooters, who are starting to find their groove.
Two of those shooters are White’s senior captains.
“[Marsh and Bell] have been phenomenal senior leaders, they’re great captains, they’ve gone above and beyond,” he said, noting their high grade point averages and the tone they set for the rest of the team.
Anyway you view this season though, comes through a COVID lens. The varsity team elected to do all distance learning to limit chances of quarantine. The team’s only had four or five positives, but those were during the summer and fall, according to White. “Been lucky in that sense.”
“I’m just proud of the girls, they’ve been putting in the work and dealing with adversity and everything that comes along with this season,” he said.
Considering how much change the girls have dealt with, Marsh said she thinks they’ve adapted well. “With everything going on, it’s just been, ‘another change? OK let’s deal with it and make the best out of it.’”
As for the rest of the season, the seniors know they need to focus on the present and each game as it comes, but feel they’re in a good spot to capture that elusive region crown, one they’ve been so close to the last few years.
“Region is looking great, as long as we keep working hard in practice and as a team, we have a good shot this year,” Bell said.
Through the first round of region, the Eagles had beaten everyone in region except losing to defending region and state champ Highland (they were slated to play Olympus on Jan. 26, after press deadline).
Looking at the 5A landscape, White identified Lehi, Farmington, Springville and region rivals Highland and Olympus as contenders for the finals.
“We can fit in there, we’re in the mix and I think we can make a splash,” he said. “We definitely have a chance at a region championship and a chance in the playoffs. I’m excited to see where they come together and how they finish out.”