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Second-year head coach is guiding a young, green, but promising group of players

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset head coach Clay Atkins and the Apollos are learning and growing in the Metro League.

Sunset's season isn't defined by wins and losses, not this year at least.

The Apollos are reupholstering their program with a young team that fights and battles in the meaty Metro League under the direction of head coach Clay Atkins. They aren't tethering their campaign to victories or defeats but rather industriousness and competitiveness.

Still, winning feels good regardless of set standards.

Led by precocious freshman post Lucy Allen, perhaps the next great player to arise out of the Sunset program, and a host of other hard-charging Apollos, Sunset soared to a 30-12 third quarter lead and withstood Aloha down the stretch for its second Metro victory, 44-33, at Aloha High School on Feb. 7.

"It's nice to get a win, but this year it's about getting better every game and every practice," Atkins said. "Most of the time this season that's happened. We've had a few games where we fell back a step or two, but we've come back. The effort has always been there."

Maddy Dobson made a big three-pointer early as did Salma Alsheba to churn the momentum early in the first quarter and floor the Apollos to an 11-4 early lead against Aloha. Point guard Malea Cesar hit Sunset's first three of the game, something Atkins said his sophomore doesn't seek often, but the Apollos encourage her and her teammates to take.

"When we're aggressive going to the basket that opens up opportunities for our shooters," Atkins said. "We always tell the girls they have the green light if they have an open shot and a good shot."

The Apollos struck a great scoring balance, putting up double-digit points in three of the four quarters. Allen and Dobson led Sunset with eight points and nine Apollos put their names in the scorebook overall. Cesar chipped in five points, Regan Noonan had four as did Katherine Roth. Sunset was forceful on the offensive glass, getting second chance points from Roth and Yolanta Penn. The Apollos pushed their lead out to 20 three times in the fourth. Their defense forced Aloha into long-winded droughts that ranged upwards of four minutes at a time in the second and third quarters.

"I thought we played a smart basketball game," Atkins said. "We had contributions across the board. We came out aggressively on the offensive side, but the biggest thing was our half-court defense was fantastic. We were getting the rotations down right. We were talking and helping each other."

Allen is a 6-foot-1 left-handed post with a soft touch around the rim and keen shot-blocking instincts on the defensive end. Already, the angular post is showing off good, healthy aggression. In the third quarter against Aloha, Allen snatched a missed free throw over a Warrior defender despite being blocked out, kept the ball high over her head and put home the offensive board to give Sunset a 25-8 advantage. The freshman is a keeper, surely, a player Atkins says possesses a bright future.

"She's incredibly competitive and has a real desire to do well," Atkins said of Allen. "We're working on some of the skill set. She's left-handed but she can shoot with both hands. She loves to play defense as well. She's definitely one of our foundation pieces as we continue to build and try to get better every day."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset freshman post Lucy Allen is one of the more promising players in the Metro League.

Alsheba, Penn and Mikaela Byrnes are the only seniors on the Sunset roster. Roth is an athletic, assertive junior wing/post with ballhandling ability. Cesar showed her outside shooting prowess against Aloha. Dobson is a 5-foot-10 stretch power forward who plays the high-low game with Allen and spreads the floor with her three-point touch. The Apollos are 5-14 overall and 2-5 in Metro with a team that places reliance on inexperience. Yet, this year is all about learning, experiencing, preparing.

Seemingly every other night Allen and the Apollos are faced with a daunting in-league challenge, whether it's clashing with Mountainside McDonald's All-American Cameron Brink, the high major Division One trio of Laura and Sydney Erikstrup and Mary Kay Naro over at Beaverton or Southridge's swells of future college players. Jesuit is well-coached with Jason Lowery at the helm and a young cache growing into contention. Westview is Sunset's closet rival. In this league, youthful teams experience a baptism by fire, but one that'll benefit them as their careers continue to develop. They're learning how to contend and stay tight to teams that could very well contend for a Class 6A state championship next month.

"I tell the girls they have a fantastic opportunity to play some great Division One basketball players and a kid that's probably going to be an Olympian someday (Brink)," Atkins said. "Metro is the toughest league in Oregon, and I love that competition. As a program, we need to understand that and continue to grow. I love the challenge of taking on great players and great teams. You just need one or two of your kids to get hot and look out. You never know. You have to bring the defense every day, but if you can play loose, I believe that any team can be beaten on any given night."

Atkins and his assistants are building Sunset with a holistic approach, procuring time and coaching resources into the youth program so that those young players can hit the ground running at the high school level. Atkins' daughter is in the eighth grade. She'll be at Sunset next year along with teammates she's grown up playing with. Atkins said he makes it a point to meet all potential and future Apollos before they set foot on campus. This weekend Atkins will be out and about on the club basketball scene, scouting some of his future players, ensuring they know he cares about their present and future development. Just three years ago, Sunset finished second in Metro, won 21 games, reached the elite eight and took sixth at the state tournament. That team ended up producing three D1 players: Rose Pflug, Maddie Muhlheim and ironically, Naro, who transferred to Beaverton after her freshman year to play for her mom, Kathy. They also had a future D3 standout in Amanda Carpenter, plus key role players like Delaney Ragan and Ellie Mead. And while the Metro is being spread thinner by the year because of Mountainside's emergence and the ever-changing school boundaries, Sunset can certainly contend once again with Atkins advocating the cause and taking this process with a long-term approach.

"This is a great group of kids that's setting the foundation for the next wave that's coming in," Atkins said. "We're investing in the future but laying the foundation today. I'm excited about the future, but I love this current group of kids."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Aloha senior Alex Porpora brings the basketball up the floor against Sunset.


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