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Winning the uphill battle: St. Helens girls' basketball makes strides

The Lions' program has struggled in recent years, but head coach Billy McKinney believes they may have turned things around


by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - CJ Rehkoph shares a laugh during summer league practice on Wednesday, July 16. Rehkoph has been part of a younger group that head coach Billy McKinney says shows promise.Stepping into the gymnasium at McBride Elementary in St. Helens on Wednesday afternoon didn't bring much of a surprise. Nine girls stood around high school coach Billy McKinney; a mixture of varsity, JV and middle school players working on a simple series of offensive drills.

But in contrast to the way things used to look, it's a massive shift.

“Two years ago, this wasn't happening. I'd drive down here, and two people would show up. Two people,” said McKinney. “If you had walked in this gym last Wednesday, you'd be surprised. I walked in here and there were 16 kids sitting on the floor, stretched out and ready to go. That's why I know that it's starting to come up, and that it's changing. The culture of this is changing.”

The group is missing several of their more experienced players who plan on returning for their senior seasons this coming winter, but regardless of the mix-and-match roster, the summer league squad has started to win games. McKinney points to several events in the last few months as major motivators: an 18-point loss to Churchill on Dec. 27, a 3-point collapse at the hands of Sprague a few days later and a season-ending loss to lowly Parkrose on Feb. 28.

The loss to Parkrose, who remained the Lions' lone victim throughout their frustrating 2013-14 season, became a building block as the summer has worn on. The team has adopted the motto “Stay humble, stay hungry. Very hungry,” and if the results on the court are signs of things to come, they're hungry indeed.

“We talked about it, that last game of the year, we gave it away against Parkrose and let a freshman girl score 37 points against us and they just kinda checked out,” said McKinney, grimacing as he remembered falling in the seasons' final contest and the locker room conversation following. “I said 'I don't care what happens, if we play 100 games, we will never have one where everybody just stops playing.' And we live by that. We live by that as a motivation.”

According to McKinney, the program has struggled to gain traction in a town that is predominantly ruled by some of the other sports. Volleyball and softball usually get many of the top athletes, who often specialize in their sport of choice. Girls' basketball isn't getting a lot of attention, and the expectation is that the program won't do well because that's simply not in the cards.

The last several years have been a frustrating ride for McKinney, who will be entering his fourth year as the teams' head coach when the season begins in December. However, along with the improved numbers, he is beginning to see signs that things might be turning around.

“When I came in, I asked for support, commitment, structure and discipline, that's what I asked for,” said McKinney. “We're halfway there. The commitment's gotten a lot better, the support's on it's way up, structure is getting there, [but] the discipline is there.”

Led by a group of incoming sophomores and juniors, the summer league team has become something McKinney hopes will bleed into the upcoming season. Maggie Cochran, who saw her minutes increase as last season continued, has been a standout player this summer, stepping up to handle many of the point guard duties as well as becoming a stronger leader among the girls. The summer has also seen the further development of Emily Nollette, a reserve on last years' team who stepped in and wore her heart on her sleeve throughout the year, throwing herself into rebounding and defense.

The attitude of the more experienced players who have spent time with the group over the last few months has made an impact on the younger players as well, using the frustration from last year and a solid team camp as a foundation for future success.

“These girls have kinda taken that and gone with it,” McKinney said, pointing as Nollette caught a long pass for an easy layup. “We talked about it and they said this is going to have to be a year where they come into their own, and I think they did that in team camp. I saw some stuff that, if we don't go .500, or close to .500 or at least have 10 wins this season, something's wrong. And they know it. My goal is to get us to the playoffs, and that's what we're going to do. I think we'll have a real opportunity to do it this year.”

The team will be extremely young, with only a handful of members identifying as seniors, and many players having spent limited time with the varsity squad last season. Regardless, McKinney said they will lean on their defense and a newly forged willingness to compete in order to win games. Things might not always be easy, but according to McKinney, the days rolling over are through.

“I'm not here to be their parent, I'm not here to be a hero,” he said. “I'm here because I want to see a change in this program, and that doesn't necessarily mean wins. I told them that we have to learn to compete before we can win, and now we've learned how to compete.”

Along with improved confidence and a new defensive philosophy come higher expectations when it comes to fitness. McKinney said he doesn't expect everyone to be perfect by the time they report to tryouts late in the fall, but he will be raising the bar in order for the team to battle at the level he envisions.

All the changes are with one goal in mind: McKinney said several members of the team have mentioned frustration about how much attention and how much of a following several other programs at St. Helens have garnered over the last few years. And his response? Win games.

“If you walk in the locker room … they've got pictures of track, swimming, cheerleading, even equestrian. Volleyball, soccer, softball – not one picture of girls' basketball,” said McKinney. “I had the girls look at that, and I said 'where's [girls' basketball] at? You have to make a name for yourselves before that happens. Let's go our and make a name for yourselves.'”

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