Toward the end of winter break the Kentwood girls basketball team wrapped up practice the day before playing Kent-Meridian.
The girls did not rush out of the gym. Instead, they lingered, chatting, joking around and having fun together. This is what the seniors — there are six — on the team think separate the Conquerors squad from the rest of the South Puget Sound League North. It’s a level of chemistry which is a result of a half dozen girls who began playing together years ago.
But, a Jan. 3 game against K-M was the first time since eight grade that all six — Sarah Toeaina, Kate Kramer, Alycea DeLong, Ashley Rolsma, Jenny Johnson and Ashleigh Key — were all able to play together.
Kramer returned in that game after a knee injury while DeLong, who injured the ACL, MCL and meniscus of her right knee in July 2012, did not play at all during the 2012-2013 season.
DeLong said it was hard watching from the bench her junior season.
“It hurt emotionally,” DeLong said. “Those crunch time games, it was tense. Being back this year, it’s fun. It’s been great.”
This season, DeLong is still wearing a brace, something she adjusted to, but it slowed her down initially. She said she has just begun to feel normal recently.
“When you’ve been together this long you have a fun together,” Johnson said after practice Jan. 2. “It’s exciting, too, because we’ve always had that missing piece.”
Toeaina added, “It’s a relief knowing that we have a deeper bench.”
DeLong echoed those sentiments, adding that it is a good feeling to have everyone back and healthy.
“Now that we have (Kramer) back, we have that extra person on the bench,” DeLong said. “Once we get into the flow, I think we’ll be set.”
Chemistry of those six seniors, plus the handful of underclassmen who round out the roster, is one thing, but the experience the Kentwood girls have will play into the success the team aspires to this season. The Conks made it to the regional round of state two years ago and played two games at the Tacoma Dome after a double overtime thriller over Lynwood in the regional round a year ago.
“Our chemistry off the court, but on the court as well (is a strength) because we’ve played together for so long,” Johnson said. “It’s weird. Sometimes coach says it seems like we know where we’re going to be before we get there.”
Johnson and Toeaina said that right now the plan is to do well in league to make it back to the playoffs.
“It’s important for us to focus on the task at hand and not look too far ahead,” Johnson said. “Knowing it’s our last year together, we want to go out with a bang.”
One game circled on the calendar is the rematch with Kentridge — the lone loss for Kentwood in league this season — set for Jan. 16 on the Conks home floor.
“We’re excited to play them again,” Toeaina said.
DeLong added, “We just want to redeem ourselves. That was not Kentwood basketball. Our practices have gotten harder. We’re just preparing for the tough teams we have to come against.”
Another contest Kentwood’s players look forward to is Mount Rainier, which features twin hoops stars Brittany and Jordan McPhee.
Johnson said that she and Toeaina have played against the McPhees since fifth grade.
“It’s a high level of competition,” Johnson said. “We recognize that, so, that’s something that we have to rise to the occasion when we play them.”
Games against the Rams will prepare the Conks for the kind of tough match ups they should expect later in the season as well as the playoffs. Johnson explained the girls have worked on their defense as well as those games that come down to the last play.
Toeaina explained that Kentwood’s girls basketball team has goals as do many of the individual players. They can count on what they learned at in the state tournament a year ago to help them go further this year.
“It shows that it’s possible for us to play up at that level,” Toeaina said. “We have the experience to get there.”
Johnson said they won’t be satisfied with another trip to the eight-team bracket, though.
“Just getting there isn’t enough,” Johnson said. “We have to win at the (Tacoma) Dome.”
DeLong explained that the biggest take away from the experience is to not let the atmosphere of the state tournament get to you as a player.
“We’ve just got to want it more than other teams,” DeLong said. “We’ve just got to leave everything on the court every single game and we’ll climb our way to the top. State is like any other game.”