West Linn's Aaronette Vonleh experienced a lot of ups and downs during her high school basketball career.
Vonleh and the Lions finished third and sixth in the Class 6A state tournament during her first two years of high school, but flamed out in the second playoff round in 2020, saw their 2021 season delayed and shortened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, then end without a state tournament.
But Vonleh — a 6-foot, 4-inch senior post — persevered. She grew, she improved, she worked, and in the end, she became Oregon's best. Vonleh, 18, was named the 2020-21 Gatorade Oregon Girls Basketball Player of the Year on June 30.
Vonleh is the first Gatorade Girls Player of the Year to be selected from West Linn High School. The award recognizes not only outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement (she maintained a weighted 3.35 GPA this year) and exemplary character on and off the court (she has volunteered locally at a homeless shelter and food bank, and has also donated time as a youth basketball coach).
For her part, Vonleh — an incoming freshman at the University of Arizona — was both surprised and gratified by the honor.
"It's kind of hard to believe because it's a big thing. It was really exciting," Vonleh said. "The whole week before we found out, I was kind of just hoping it would be me, but I was a little bit surprised, yeah."
"I am so excited for her," said West Linn coach Brooke Cates. "She is such an awesome all-around person. I love that she received this prestigious award."
The rest of Oregon's best girls basketball players were probably less surprised because Vonleh was flat-out dominant as a senior. A two-time first-team all-state selection (she was also the 2020 Three Rivers League Player of the Year), Vonleh used her size and increased athleticism to average 28.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 71.1 percent from the floor and leading West Linn to a 12-4 overall record.
Vonleh, who always ran the court well and finished on the fast break, said she used the pandemic to build her speed, strength and jumping ability. She worked with her brother, Noah Vonleh (an 11-year NBA veteran who's played for seven different teams, including two stints with the Portland Trail Blazers), and worked one-on-one with a personal trainer for the first time in her life, then took all that momentum into her senior season with West Linn.
"It was both those things combined, and then eventually (being) able to start doing things on my own and working with other people," she said. "The quarantine period was really beneficial for me because it gave me a lot of time to focus on weaknesses that I wanted to improve on. … I had a lot of time to focus on all of that and the things I was already good at. And then, by the time of the season … I still had everything I had last year, but I also had the new things I've been working on."
Her efforts did not go unnoticed.
"Aaronette is dominant inside, but also is very smart about when to shoot versus when to pass," said Tiffani Traver, head coach at Oregon City High School. "She can attack the basket from the perimeter and really has pushed herself defensively to now be able to defend outside the key as well."
Over the course of her high school career at West Linn, the Lions went 78-22 overall, 48-7 in the Three Rivers League, won one TRL title and finished second three times. The Lions also reached the Class 6A state tournament twice and ended 2021 by playing the best teams in the state, winning twice in the Maroon bracket of the culminating week tournaments, including a 65-27 rout of TRL champion Tualatin in its season finale.
"It wasn't ideal because, of course, we wanted a full season. But I am really glad that we were able to have at least something," Vonleh said. "Our team was still able to play against some of the other best teams. And it (was good) because we didn't know beforehand if we were even gonna have anything at all."
Now, she has her sights set on trying to prove herself at the college level and help Arizona continue its winning ways. The Wildcats ended their 2020-21 season with a 21-6 record after advancing all the way to the NCAA tournament championship before falling 54-53 to Stanford.
"It was a really hard decision (to choose Arizona) … so I kind of based my decision on my relationship with the coaches," Vonleh said. "I was comfortable talking to all of them and they were very open and honest about what it would be like and that's what led me there.
"I was kind of nervous before I got here — I didn't know what to expect — but so far, it has been really good."
Looking back on her senior season at West Linn, Vonleh said the best part of her year was spending time with her friends and teammates.
"I think one of the highlights — just because of the whole school year being online — was once (it got to spring), it was just nice being able to actually go back into the building, and just see all my teammates (and) coaches. It's like, can I just have a way to say goodbye in the last month before I leave? So that was definitely my highlight."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.