Remain standing if you thought the Spanish Springs girls basketball team, under first-year coach Art Cardenas, would finish one win short of 20, and one shy of a state tournament berth.
Are you still standing? Liar.
“You know, I thought it was a very successful season,” Cardenas said. “We did a lot better than a lot of people expected us to do.”
The Cougars (19-8) finished third in the High Desert League behind perennial Nevada powers Reed and Reno before upsetting Douglas (Sierra No. 2) on the road, 43-40, in the North quarterfinals.
If there was an award for most improved team in the North, the Cougs would have been the only team nominated. Spanish Springs lost to the same Tigers’ squad in the first game of the season by a whopping 27 points, 47-20.
“It took them time to get used to (new motion offense) so that and as far as passing and screening as opposed to passing and cutting, it was a little different for them. It was just repetition,” Cardenas said. “When you’re running the offense you’re learning it a little better. Toward the end of the season they were looking for scoring situations, they were looking for the scoring areas. They weren’t just running through the offense. Now they were executing the offense and looking for scoring chances.”
Five days before the quarterfinal win at Douglas, the Cougars won their first game at Reed in school history, topping the Raiders 54-51.
Cardenas said the back-to-back road wins over the HDL runner-up and the SL runner-up were the highlight of the season.
The Cougars saw their season come to end two nights after semifinal win, against No. 1 and eventual North champion, Reno. Cardenas said the semifinal appearance is something the program can build on.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Cardenas said. “I know it did for me. You could say it kind of left me hungry. You get one step away from going to state, and one step away from playing in a regional title game, and as a coach it motivates you to do better than that next year. And talking to a lot of the girls, they want to do better than that next year.”
The Cougars were unquestionably led by senior point guard Hannah Woytek and fellow senior Mariah Vargas. The senior duo were the first two to meet Cardenas in his first open gym as the Cougars’ coach.
Woytek handled the ball the blaring majority of the time and did all but put her team on her back and carry it to the quarterfinal win over Douglas. She scored 22 points – 15 in the second half – to edge the Tigers by three.
“It’s unexplainable right now,” Woytek said after the win. “Because we weren’t even supposed to make it to the playoffs this year. We were underestimated.”
Vargas set a school record, making six 3s in a rout over North Valleys this season – scoring a then career-high 22 points. She said the breakout performance opened her eyes to the possibility of playing collegiately.
Vargas set a new career-high in the team’s final regular season game, the win at Reed, with 24 points.
Cardenas has coached basketball for eight years but in his first drawing up the plays, he said there were plenty of adjustments to make.
“I’ve been coaching for eight years now in the lower levels but at the varsity level there’s a big difference,” Cardenas said. “The whole program is your responsibility. You’re overseeing the freshman and the JV level and taking care of the little things… the stuff you have to do on the side. The fun part, the easy part, is coaching basketball. I just know basketball and coaching it to me is second nature.”
Unfortunately for Cardenas, the “little things” included organizing the team turning in uniforms – Tuesday.
Spanish Springs finished the season winning five of its final six contests. The five-game winning streak before the loss to Reno was the Cougars’ third of five games or more.