Building a title contender from the ground up
John F. Kennedy High School is not a basketball school.
That may raise a few eyebrows for those who have watched the Kennedy girls basketball team raise two championship banners to the rafters over the past four seasons and dominate the Tri-River Conference year after year.
But co-head coach Pete Hall knows that a lot of the girls entering the program each winter are playing their secondary or tertiary sport of the year.
"They play year-round volleyball, year-round softball," Hall said. "Basketball is their third sport, and we are trying to get them to be championship-level players.
"They're athletic, but they're not basketball players," he continued. "Whatever people think, they're just not, but we're making them basketball players, we're making them a team."
The majority of the Trojans' contributors this season are coming off the grind and elation of winning their first volleyball state championship in school
history in November. It will be up to co-head coaches Pete and Kerry Hall to harness that excitement amongst the incoming players and channel it into the much-more physical game this winter.
With only a few weeks to get the girls focused on putting the ball through the net instead of over the net, the Kennedy coaching staff is focused on making the team realize that past success means little coming into a new season — even with the pedigree that the Trojans bring with them.
"We pride ourselves in never looking ahead," Hall said. "People are probably like, 'Kennedy is going to be at the top.' I don't think that way. I think we're starting over every year."
And to an extent, they are. The Trojans graduated two-time all-state wing Kalyssa Kleinschmit and starting point guard Clarissa Traeger, both four-year players integral to last year's run to the state semifinals and third-place finish.
Consequently, the offense will be turned over to a new player. Coaches will also need to find another versatile two-way player who can be effective on the perimeter and in the post. Lastly, coaches will be tasked with bringing in three new varsity members and facing a pre-season schedule that includes two defending state champions in the first five games.
It's a daunting task, but one that the Trojans embrace.
With Traeger gone, Kennedy is counting on her returning backcourt teammate Hailey Arritola to move the ball up the court, set up the offense, and be the spearhead of the team's aggressive defense. While Arritola has always been a dogged defender, getting her to be more assertive on the offensive end is going to be important this season.
"How do we get Hailey involved in scoring?" Hall asks. "We won't win unless we get (her) involved attacking the basket and getting easy baskets."
Replacing Kleinschmit is a difficult task as well, one that will be accomplished with two players. Junior guard Elise Suing enters the lineup this year, giving the Trojans a speedy, defensive presence, while junior forward Ellie Cantu moves to the post and is expected to take on a more significant role on offense.
"We give up size, but (Cantu is) also really hard to guard," Hall said. "She can grab a rebound and she can weave (through the defense). She is a very good basketball player. It's just figuring out where she fits."
Pete and Kerry's daughter, Reese, is also getting her first start this season, earning minutes off the bench as a freshman last year. Reese is one of the few members of the basketball team who did not play volleyball and has excelled in her first few games starting opposite Arritola in the backcourt.
"She's started off very strong for a sophomore, went right into the starting and has been averaging about 15.0 points a game," Hall said. "It's like, wow, where did this come from?"
Anchoring the team is perennial all-state post and 2018 2A Player of the Year Sophia Carley, a 6-foot-1 game-changer in the middle that is the core of what makes Kennedy such a difficult team to defend against and the focal point of opposing teams. However, even she needs time to adjust to the season as opponents try to game-plan against her.
"We already know Sophia is going to get double-teamed, and at times there are three girls down there," Hall said. "Now it's getting Sophia to recognize when it's a one-on-one and go score. It takes time to develop."
In all, it's a work-in-progress for the Kennedy girls that the players and coaching staff hope will coalesce into a stellar season and an opportunity to bring yet another state championship trophy to Mount Angel in March.
"Our goal is to finish the regular season, win league, win a state title in that order," Hall said. "Every year it's the same goal, and it's not going to be easy."
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