Lost in all the hype – justified hype – around the Saline boys’ basketball program was a fine season turned in by the Saline girls’ varsity basketball team.
In November, if you’d have asked me how many wins this team would produce, I’d have guessed 8 to 11.
This was a team of unknowns. This was a team full of soccer, field hockey and softball stars who happened to be athletic enough to pull off basketball, too. That’s been the story with Saline girls basketball (and boys too) as long as I’ve covered the team. Great athletes. But they’re very rarely basketball-first athletes. Most of the athletic girls with basketball height are swatting at volleyballs 12 months a year.
The SEC Red can be tough conference for girls basketball. Huron is a perennial state powerhouse. Pioneer has fallen back in recent years, but they’re always a tough match. And then, of course, there’s Bedford. It’s tough to win in basketball without the elite, basketball-first athletes. Huron has them. Saline doesn’t.
When the 2016-17 season started for coach Jeff Waltz and his girls, it was hard to know how this team was going to succeed. This was a team that lost 48-28 to Bedford the previous year in districts, and they were graduating their most reliable scorer. How was this team going to score points?
You knew coach Jeff Waltz would have his team ready to play defense. That’s the hallmark of a Waltz-coached team.
But how was this team going to score?
Abbey Bowen and Glory Ford took major steps forward in their senior year. Bowen found a three-point shot to go with her unyielding hustle. Ford learned how to use her strength under the basket. Sydney Jarvela continued to refine her game and was more surehanded carrying the ball up the floor and distributing it to teammates. It also helped the Jarvela, Bowen and Shannon Reilly brought state championship experience from their other spots. Olivia Darmos, an all-league softball player, provided the team with clutch outside shooting.
But when push comes to shove, this team wasn’t blazing fast. We didn’t have any amazons out on the floor. And the team lacked natural scorers.
That they got to 13 wins is a testament to how hard the girls worked in practice and games. They played smart. They played tough. They played with guts. That’s also a testament to coach Waltz.
Waltz is every bit as intense as boys’ coach Jake Fosdick. Fosdick’s intensity is volcanic and displayed for all to see. Waltz’s brand of intensity simmers beneath the skin. There are nights a reporter wants to choose his words carefully when speaking to Waltz after a game. I’ll never forget the look on Waltz’s face when a Manchester reporter caught Waltz with a dumb question after Saline lost badly at Manchester on opening night a couple years ago.
It’s been a few years since Waltz and Zylstra, Ellis, Needham, Bruley, Barnes, Reyst, Mulder and company won their district championship. Good as that team was (looking at a district championship team photo, it was very good) I’m not sure it could have made it out of an Ann Arbor district.
Winning matters. It feels good. It’s one of the great rewards for hard work. It’s a way to measure success. But winning never sticks with you as much as the battle. You can’t watch Jarvela, playing with a broken nose, leaping through a crowd of elbows and shoulders, without seeing the commitment to her team. You can’t see Bowen repeatedly thrown to the floor by bigger and stronger girls, only to get up and come back even harder, without rooting for her.
At the start of the year, I wondered if this team had the personnel to win 10 games. Now I wonder how they’ll replace all these seniors.
That’s what Waltz does. And that’s why I already see promise in next year’s team.
Asia Lindsey looks poised to become a scoring leader next year. Brooke Bauer has the hands to score from anywhere and the strength to battle inside. Maddy Welch has a motor and an outside shot. Kelsey Alexander is fast, athletic and fearless. There’s good young talent in the Saline program.
Granted, they all need to work and round into form. And that’s what coach Waltz does best.
I look forward to next year’s season.