Last year's season ended abruptly for the Liberty girls basketball team. Following a dominating win over Mountainside in the quarterfinals of the OSAA state basketball tournament and a day before a semifinal showdown with top-ranked Beaverton, the high-flying Falcons and their hopes of a state championship were grounded by what would become a more-than-year-long pandemic.
Since then, some of the team has graduated, while others remain. But from those remaining players to the coach who helped make last year happen, they all agree upon something: It's time to move on.
"I do still think about it, honestly," senior guard Taylin Smith said, "But I've kind of settled with being content making it to the final four, just trying to move on, and making the best out of this new season."
Head coach Melanie Wagoner also had her eye on what's in front of her and her team, but at the same time appreciated what was a year ago.
"That was a very special group of girls," Wagoner said, "But I think we've all learned so much during this pandemic and as much as anything, moving forward is a definite must."
This year's Falcons are a bit of a different animal than last year's iteration. Gone are posts Clara Robbins, Breeze Bartle, Alexa Smith, and Alyssa Chronister, all near or at 6 feet tall, along with guard Talia Kahakai-Wyatt and wing Bella Hamel. But remaining are two primary ingredients to last season's success, all-league guard Livia Knapp and all-state guard Taylin Smith — the latter of whom is committed to attend and play basketball for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas this coming fall.
Wagoner knows they've lost a lot, but she also knows this year's squad couldn't be in better hands than those of her returning standouts.
"You could certainly argue they're the best backcourt duo in the state," Wagoner said. "They go out and get after it every night. They're really talented, they're hard workers, great teammates and leaders, so I think this year they're going to go out there and really showcase their talent."
Surrounding that talent will be a new and young group of Liberty basketball players, including a freshman and six sophomores.
Senior Nesse Grenfell, junior Brynly Bryan, and sophomores Amara Harper and Sage Reamer saw limited minutes last year, but the latter three are projected to start. Wagoner said Bryan will play a key defensive role and will be relied upon on the boards, Reamer adds an outside shooting threat, and Harper — who missed last season after tearing her ACL during tryouts — is one of the team's most improved players and brings a well-rounded game to the court. Additionally, the coach said 6-foot freshman post Kammy Mahlum is someone she's excited to see in her first varsity action.
"She adds both height and length to the roster," Wagoner said. "I expect her to see a lot of time on the court and make an impact."
Like a lot of teams during this unique season, Liberty will also face adversity early, dealing with limited practice time to prepare, along with a compromised roster as they await the return of players finishing spring sports.
"There's a two-week overlap with spring sports, and for us, that's going into a couple games," Wagoner said. "With the youth we have coming in, I think a lot of kids will get minutes, and we'll see how things go."
Smith said that despite the roster turnover and the infusion of youthful inexperience, she's excited for the opportunity to spread her wings both on the court, and as a leader for what's an entirely new group of Liberty girls.
"I definitely see it as an opportunity to grow," Smith said. "At the next level, I'm going to have to be a leader, and I'm a point guard, so that's part of my job. It's definitely a challenge to get everyone on the same page."
She added that it is a bit weird working with a new group of teammates, having spent the last three years with a core group. But while the roster might be a tad unfamiliar, what isn't is her backcourt running mate — Livia Knapp, who's been by her side since the eighth grade.
"I can definitely rely on Liv," Smith said. "I always go to her if I have a question about one of the plays or any other basketball stuff, so having her there with me this year is a big help."
It's that kind of team work that Smith thinks will be key to any success this year's Falcons will have.
"I think me and Liv are the motors," she said. "Our job is to do our best and to get the others to follow. We know they're going to be a little uncomfortable in the beginning, but it's our job to bring them up and help them out, and if we do, I think we can be pretty good."
And what's the team's goal? After all, like with all of the other sports to this point, there are no state championships to play for. Regardless, Wagoner said they'll play to win, and with her senior guards running the show, they're still capable of doing just that.
"I believe that Liv and Tay (Smith) can carry us a long ways, but because of our success last year, a lot of teams will be coming for us," Wagoner said. "It's going to be a huge challenge, and I think it's a great opportunity for our young kids to get better, and an opportunity for (Knapp and Smith) to display their skills."
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