Girls basketball: It's championship or bust for Kennedy
With the 2017-18 basketball season tipping off this week, the Kennedy girls have one thing on their minds — championship.
It's a lofty goal for any team coming into the season, but what else is there to expect from a program that returns every single varsity member from a team that finished third in state just eight months ago?
"The kids want to win a title, but talk is cheap, we have to go out there and prove it," co-head coach Peter Hall said.
The Trojans are nearly two years removed from winning the 2016 2A State Championship — the first state title in program history for the Kennedy girls — and the team still boasts eight athletes from that season who are eager to return to bring the trophy back to Mount Angel.
But it's the players who weren't on that team that Hall is first to bring up: returning sophomores Sophia Carley and Ibeth Gomez. A backup guard, Gomez possesses the quick reflexes and athleticism that have been a hallmark of Kennedy girls basketball under Peter and coaching partner Kerry Hall. The Trojans have long challenged opposing teams through aggressive press defenses, starting with the guard position, and Gomez is the next player to step into that role.
"Last year, you didn't see a lot of Ibeth Gomez, but she is impressing everyone in practice," Hall said. "She is really embracing her goal and she is lightning quick."
Carley was one of five all-conference honorees last year, earning Second Team recognition. Kerry and Peter have been working with the sophomore post to expand her game beyond the paint, adding another dimension to her already impressive abilities to score and rebound close to the basket.
"She's not just going to be just a post," Hall said. "You can't triple team her on the free throw line."
As Carley's game has improved, so has her confidence outside of games, taking an expanded leadership role in her second year on the team.
"She is just beyond remarkable," Hall said. "Her leadership leaps off the page, especially in practices."
Of course, Carley isn't the only one getting extra shooting practice. If there was one weakness for the Trojans last season, it was their outside shooting. Opposing teams were happy to collapse the paint on Carley and the Trojans' platoon of talented forwards, forcing Kennedy to earn its points from outside.
This year, they intend to make teams pay for leaving players open from distance, regardless of who has the ball.
"We knew it as coaches, we can't shoot," Hall said. "They have to evolve as players and they did. They've done great."
Kalyssa Kleinschmit, another Second Team honoree, has also put in hours over the summer and in practices to work on her shooting game.
"That was her weakness last year, outside shooting," Hall said. "We put in a ton of shooting work with her in the offseason and she has just blossomed."
With so many capable returning players, the Kennedy coaching staff is running into the enviable problem of having too many athletes and not enough minutes to spread around. Hall describes it as having two sets of varsity teams, which allows the coaching tandem to throw their players at opponents in waves like a hockey team.
"We can plug and play anybody, to be honest," Hall said. "It's hard. We talked to a lot of kids and told them that minutes will be limited, but what minutes you get, make them count."
Even with that mentality, the Kennedy coaches were still having a difficult time finding playing time for senior all-conference forward Molly Jaeger. The solution? Move her to point guard. With Jaeger playing from the outside, it clears up more playing time for Kleinschmit, Carley and all-conference forward Hannah Arritola. It also allows First Team All-State guard Kaylin Cantu to play off ball and gives the Trojans a big height advantage with the 5-foot-8-inch Jaeger matching up against smaller guards.
"She's a really good floor general and she's been embracing it," Hall said. "She's put in more work than anybody."
Cantu will still be counted on to finish offensive possessions, but without having to expend energy taking the ball up the court, Cantu will have that much more in reserve on the defensive end where she makes her living as an oppressive force to dribble against.
But when it comes to game time, positions will be more of a formality for the Trojans, who will be looking to push the pace of play as much as possible.
"We did a full scrimmage last night and the girls aren't making any dribbles," Hall said. "It's just pass, pass, pass and lay-in."
Kennedy opens the season at home against Amity on Wednesday, followed by back-to-back road games at Taft and Vernonia. The first big test will be on Dec. 8 against the defending state champion Monroe Dragons, who beat the Trojans last year en route to an undefeated season.
But make no mistake, Kennedy is ready to hit the floor, no matter who is playing on the other side.
"The girls are just excited to play," Hall said.