“On the first day you walk in the gym, we’re going for a zone title,” Reed girls basketball coach Sara Schopper said. “From the first day of tryouts, that’s the expectation. Let’s get after it, let’s play. We don’t want to lose. We want to hang another banner and we want to represent the North in state. Of course, state is on that list as well.”
Reaching the halfway point in the league season, the Raiders are on their way to achieving those goals. They sit on the throne atop the High Desert League standings still unblemished in the loss column in league play at 8-0 and 10-2 overall.
“I’m happy with where we’re at,” Schopper said. “We’re undefeated and we’re growing. We still haven’t hit our full potential yet, which is a good thing. We don’t want to hit that too soon. I think we still have a lot of growing to do and I’m excited for the next half. It’s hard to beat a team twice, so I’m excited to play the next half of games and see how we do.”
Cross-town rival Spanish Springs isn’t far behind the Raiders, currently holding the third spot in the High Desert League The Cougars (14-5 overall) are 6-2 in league with their only two losses coming at the hands of the teams ahead of them, perennial Northern 4A powers Reed and Reno.
“This is where we expected to be,” Spanish Springs coach Christine Eckles said. “I feel real good about it. We’ve got two losses to the two best teams, but other than that we’ve played well. We’ve performed at a high level and I don’t know that we could ask for more. We’re sitting in good shape and it’s very important that we take care of business on Friday against Hug, to complete that first round against everybody with W’s, except for Reed and Reno.
“We feel like we have a good team. We’re hoping to be in a situation where we can push and knock on the door of Reed and Reno and be in some games in the fourth quarter with them. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re still climbing those mountains and trying to get to a point where we’re competing with those guys. We haven’t done that yet, but I definitely think we’ve established ourselves as a good program and a team that’s difficult to beat at times.”
For the second season in a row, under a scheduling format that calls for league games before winter break, both teams jumped into crucial games right away to begin the season. For Eckles, this is not the best model.
“I don’t really like it. I like and prefer the old way we did things where we had the non-league games in November and December and then we got in to league after Christmas. It just gives you a lot of time to work on things and not have to rush to put everything in so early.”
Despite the drawbacks of opening the season in league play, some argue that it is a positive.
“I like playing games, so I like it,” Schopper said. “Before, without the schedule change, we could never find anybody to play us from the other side, so I like the fact that we get to play everybody and that we just get to play games. We’ve gone so many times where I couldn’t even get the other side to play us. So we would go into the season, after Christmas break, with maybe one tournament which is four games underneath our belt. Now, going in to the second part of the season, we have 12 games under our belt instead of the four that we usually have.”
Just as much of an issue as opening the season with league games is the current setup that counts cross-over 4A games against the record.
“I feel that you want to play every team in the area and when you beat a team that should count,” Schopper said. “I would like to face everybody twice. I think that’d be fun. We just played Manogue and it was a great game. It’d be fun to play them again before if we were to see them in the playoffs. So I definitely would like to play the whole league twice.
“I know it’s not great to have them count against you and have them be league games right off the bat, but I’ll take games whenever I can get games. I’m probably the only coach that does like it. I like for every game to mean something. You have to prep the girls and get them ready to play and get them focused. They like to come out and make sure that every game counts. When you say that ‘this is just a preseason game so it doesn’t count,’ then their mentality isn’t set. When you come out and you say ‘every game counts from the get go, let’s go out there and play and ‘D’ it up,’ it makes it more intense and more worthwhile because we still have a lot to learn and have a lot to put in.”
That enthusiasm and support isn’t reverberated by others. Eckles doesn’t approve of the current system.
“I don’t like it, especially when you only play them once,” Eckles said. “You may get somebody at home, or get somebody on the road. I don’t think it’s as fair of a process as when you play everybody twice, home and away. Even looking at college, I don’t know of anyone else that runs that model, so I prefer the old setup. I think it’d be good to maybe schedule some of those crossover games so that we play them, because I do think it’s good to play everybody. I just don’t think that they necessarily should count in league.”
Regardless of the debate over the scheduling issues, both teams are staying focused on the second half of the season.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” Eckles said. “I know that’s very cliché, but I think it’s the best way to go about business. Don’t look ahead, take care of what’s in front of you. We’re really working on controlling what we can control and that’s our effort in practice every day and the effort we put out on the floor. The girls are doing a great job of that, day in and day out. I’m pleased with where we’re at and just want to keep getting better.
“The goal is to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season, so I’m hoping we get hot here in the next few weeks and play our best basketball. We spent some time the other day in practice talking about the New York Giants and how six weeks ago they were talking about it being a disappointing season and now they’re truly one of the hottest teams in the NFL, one game away from the Super Bowl. That’s what we want to do. We want to get hot at the right time, be playing well, and make a run for it. We would really like to get a home playoff game, but we’d have to finish in the second seed. If we don’t, then obviously we want to win that first round, and then we’re playing at home for the regional tournament which would be a nice little boost. First we have to qualify though.”
Spanish Springs High is designated as the host site for regional semifinals and final in mid-February.
In order to have a chance at accomplishing its goals, Eckles said the Cougars will need to continue to distribute scoring while also improving their shooting and protecting the ball.
“The thing that I’m most pleased with is we’ve been very balanced in our scoring, which I think has been a positive for us, that we haven’t had in the past few years. We have four people averaging close to 10 points or over, so that’s a nice thing that I’m proud of.
“I think the thing that we’re going to need to work on in the second half is we just have to shoot the ball a little bit better. Our shooting percentage has gone down a little bit through the season, and looking at film, a lot of that is us not having our feet set at the right time or getting the ball to each other. We also have just turned it over a little bit too much. Especially in transition and I think with the caliber of people that we have, we can be better in that area.”
As for the Raiders, some minor tweaks are needed according to their coach before they can set their sights on repeating as Northern 4A champs.
“Our defense does a really good job and we convert on our fast breaks, but if we don’t get teams to turn the ball over, we have to play in the half-court set and sometimes that takes us out of the flow of our game,” Schopper said. “We have to improve on that because I’m sure teams won’t turn the ball over as much the second time playing us. We just have to execute our offense a little bit more, but I like what I see. Our shooters are stepping up, our guards are stepping up, our post is in there. So offensively, we look good. Defensively, I think we can bounce a little bit more and get our hands up in the lane. We do a pretty good job of that right now, but there’s always room to improve.”
In the 3A ranks, the other Rail City girls’ basketball team has not had as much success as its big sisters. In fact, the Sparks girls have had minimal success at best, managing just one win on their way to a 1-8 overall record (0-1 in league). The lackluster performance and results have created an identity crisis for the Railroaders.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think we know who we are right now or where we stand,” Sparks coach Tony Shaw said. “We don’t know. As a group, as a team, we don’t know. We’re Jekyll and Hyde. That’s not good and that’s not where we want to be right now.
“Going into the season, my expectations were really high because this is probably the best team that’s been here in the last five years since I’ve been here. It honestly is because of the attitudes and the hustle. We’re not very good offensively and we turn the ball over too much. For some reason, I don’t know why, we can’t put it together.”
In spite of the dilemma in figuring out what team it wants to be, there are some positives for Sparks.
“On the positive side, we play hard,” Shaw said. “We will hustle and do the little things.”
Now the Maroon and Gold heads into the majority of its Mount Rose League schedule where it will have plenty of opportunities to develop and get on the winning side of things with nine of its 10 league games squeezed into the next four weeks.
“It is what it is,” Shaw said. “The schedule falls out how the schedule falls out. We just have to play. We can’t complain. They know and they understand what’s going on. We just have to play, because if we play up to our ability, we will be okay. When we don’t though, the results are what our record is right now.
“We just need to take it one game at a time and we just need to improve on little things. I imagine we lead the league in turnovers. We just need to take our time and just do the little things and do them to the best of our ability. I’m not concerned about our defense. I think our defense is fine. We will compete. I think we’re in shape, but on the other end, we just need to take care of the basketball. You have to make layups, you have to make two-footers, and you have to make free throws. And those three things, we’re not doing. That’s why we’re at where we’re at.”