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February 28, 2019
When I reached out to girls basketball coach Peter Kenah about shadowing his team for a week, he responded with “A week following the team! Get ready for laughter & crazy high volume!”
The girls varsity team is 19–3 and has been a dominant force in the county this season. I followed the team the week of Jan. 14. From Tuesday to Saturday—Monday was a snow day— I went to practices, games, socials and more to discover what goes into the team’s success.
The week started off in spectacular fashion: a rivalry game against the B–CC Barons. The Vikes came into the game seeking revenge after their last season ended at the hands of the Barons.
Typically, 90 minutes before home games, the team has a shootaround in the small gym, which gives players an opportunity to get some last-minute practice shots in and go over the plays they plan to use in the game. They do the same for away games and leave to go to the opposing school right after.
“It’s nice to get extra warm-up time outside of the 20 minutes we get right before the game,” guard Anna Krush said. “We also review the other team’s plays and what defense they’re going to run, so it’s a nice refresher before the game.”
Before big games, Kenah starts shootaround with trivia on the opposing school. Questions before B-CC ranged from “Which player currently leads the county in free throws attempted & free throws made?” to “What Whitman teacher coaches one of the B-CC winter sports teams?”
In shootaround, center Leia Till worked on her shots in the post with help from injured guard Sophie deBettencourt. The Johns Hopkins commit, tore her ACL in the beginning of the season, sidelining her for the whole year. Although injured, deBettencourt still comes to practices and games to assist the players, whether it be warming them up or going over film with them.
After several drills and run-throughs of plays, the team huddled up before heading to B–CC. Kenah gave a quick pep talk to motivate the team before one of their biggest games of the year.
“Your mindset has got to be ready tonight,” Kenah said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
Facing a rowdy B-CC student section, the team initially had several communication struggles leading to missed opportunities and turnovers. In a timeout, Kenah took responsibility for the problem: “My fault for not communicating with you guys.”
Even after a tough first half, the Vikes still led by three points going into the break. In the second half, the Vikes really ramped it up. The bench grew increasingly energized; players and assistant coach Tammy Ross would jump out of their seats after every good play.
Kenah motivated and encouraged the players until the final whistle, yelling, “Way to be there for each other!” and “We’re not losing this game!” With strong late game defense and rebounding, the Vikes were able to pull out a win 52–48.
Till put her extra post practice to work, leading the team in scoring with 19 points.
“Offensively, we definitely took it to them,” Till said. “It was a little closer than what we wanted, but everyone played well and we’re feeling pretty good.”
Before they began practice, Kenah and the players went through their thoughts on last night’s victory and what they were planning to work on moving forward. Kenah broke the huddle with words of encouragement.
“After today’s practice, we’re going to walk out better physically, mentally and in all levels than when we came in,” Kenah said.
To warm up, the team played a game of soccer. Guards Molly Knox and Jaclyn Morgan, with their varsity soccer backgrounds, were put on different teams to level the playing field and the girls played a 4v4 game for 10 minutes.
After warmups, center Drew Meadows placed her speaker at half court and blasted “pump-up” music. While the guards began to practice with Kenah and the bigs worked with Ross, deBettencourt showed Morgan film from last night’s game to point out things she can improve on.
“The upperclassmen treat me like their little sister,” Morgan, a sophomore, said. “It’s a lot of fun, and it feels like a big family.”
Throughout practice, Till shouted out words of encouragement to the players, like “Oh yeah, Carter!” and “Let’s go Emma!” The team thrives on support from each other, high fiving after every shot made and hyping up teammates on defense.
“We really try to motivate each other and cheer everyone on,” guard Lexi Fleck said. “We’re all best friends and want everyone to be successful.”
The team ended their two-hour practice with 30 minutes of stretching in the weight room and then a 30-minute film session in Kenah’s portable. The girls lift two times a week in the fall, and they lift or stretch one to two times a week during the season. On Wednesday, they stretched and worked on basic floor exercises in a group while Kenah and Ross lifted on their own.
The girls started off their practice with a film session on the B–CC game and discussed their miscues, why they slipped on defense and what they were thinking on certain plays. Players consistently took responsibility for mistakes, calling out, “My bad for that one,” and “Yeah, that was my fault. I’ll get it next time.”
To get a message in the team’s head before Friday’s home game against Einstein, Kenah went on Youtube and showed a video from the singing contest “The Voice.” In the video, the judges hear an amazing, incredibly high voice during the blind auditions, and when they turn to see the singer, they’re surprised because it’s a teenage boy— someone who they would’ve never guessed could sing like that. Kenah emphasized that his players shouldn’t prejudge Einstein simply because they’ve beaten them before, and the Vikes should try their hardest the whole game regardless.
Thursday’s practice also included the boys practice squad, a group of athletic Whitman boys who aren’t on the boys basketball team but practice regularly with the girls to provide the team with a physical challenge. The practice squad was started in 2009 to give the girls a taste of more athletic competition and teach them how to play against it.
“The boys are incredibly helpful,” Knox said. “Especially before big games like B–CC and Churchill because we’re able to use taller and more athletic boys to simulate other really competitive players on other teams.”
After running a few warm-up drills together, the girls and boys played a scrimmage against each other. Using plays they planned to use against Einstein, the girls were able to crack the boys’ tough defense. Guard Sara Azimi drained a number of 3-pointers in the scrimmage, but it wasn’t enough. The boys used their speed and height to their advantage, edging the girls out by one.
“They get to the ball faster and are able to jump higher, so that’s what we try to practice against,” Knox said. “We set up plays that other teams might run, and if we are able to stop the boys from running them, then we’ll probably stop it in game.”
At the end of practice, the team played competitive drill-based games. I joined the last game, “Money in the bank,” where players stand around the 3-point line to shoot. If the previous player makes a 3-pointer, the next player must make their shot in order to stay alive. Although the team loves to crack jokes, they also are very competitive; Azimi tried to pressure me on a shot with, “Don’t miss,” and then proceeded to laugh when I did. It’s all in good fun, though.
In their final game of the week, the girls team dominated all-around and prevailed over Einstein 63–34. Throughout the game, the bench was ecstatic; every player contributed offensively and defensively in a huge morale-boosting win.
“These games are always very fun,” guard Matilda Mackay said. “The bench celebrates a lot more, we’re much more relaxed and we’re just having fun playing basketball.”
After an 8:00 a.m. practice, the team went to do yoga with instructor Kate Kuhn. Kate, math teacher Jim Kuhn’s wife, leads the team in a one-hour yoga session every Saturday to relax and stretch after a busy week.
“It’s really helpful because it loosens us up physically and makes sure we’re healthy for the upcoming games,” forward Emma Salafsky said.
To cap off their successful week, the team spent their Saturday together. After yoga, they all went out to eat breakfast together and then later regrouped to eat dinner. The team capped off the night by singing karaoke together at karaoke club iRock.
Throughout their successful 19–3 season, the team has thrived on working and communicating together. The constant output of advice, humor and supporting words have made the Vikes one of the top girls basketball teams in the DMV.
“This team has definitely been clicking on and off the court,” Salafsky said. “We’ve learned very valuable lessons for going into playoffs, and we’ve really bonded as a team so we have a lot of fun, too.”
The team starts playoffs this Friday against the Wheaton Knights at 5:30 at home.
Sara Azimi is a sports writer for The Black & White.