SPORTS: Practice makes perfect as the Neah Bay girls basketball team eyes state title

NEAH BAY — Lisa Halttunen puts a premium on practice. Understandable.

Given all the talent on the Neah Bay girls basketball team this winter, and the unimposing schedule it will play, those scrimmages might be the most competitive games the Red Devils see until February.

Just ask Clallam Bay head coach Kelly Gregory, who only had to watch a couple of quarters Tuesday to see that was the case.

“They belong in another league,” Gregory said after seeing his team get beat up 61-8 by Neah Bay. “I don’t see anybody even coming close to them. Look what they did to Forks [another 65-25 win].

“They are not even pressing yet or fast breaking. When they get that rolling, what are you going to do?”

Surely, the entire Class 1B girls contingent in Western Washington is wondering the same thing.

With each of Neah Bay’s top five scorers returning from a 25-2 team that took fourth in 1B last year — its only two losses came to a 2A school and the eventual 1B champions — the Red Devils are loaded. Throw a group of talented freshmen into the mix, and they are downright scary.

Thus, when things get going in practice, the level of play is akin to something one might see at 1B state.

“I think at practice when we’re going hard and we’re practicing hard and we’re playing each other and it’s competitive, it makes a difference,” said Halttunen, who has guided Neah Bay to state in each of her previous five seasons as coach.

“I was just telling the girls that starting spots are up for grabs. Any one of the girls on the team could be in those positions.”

Neah Bay was already starting at a pretty good place.

Senior guards Cherish Moss and Rebecca Thompson were the NOL’s offensive and defensive players of the year last winter.

The former was the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points and 2.8 assists per game, while the other was right behind at 13.3 points, 3.1 assists and 3.6 steals.

Senior Courtney Winck was an All-NOL post after averaging 8.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, and sophomores Cierra Moss (9.7 ppg) and Merissa Murner (8.9 ppg) could have easily been honored as well.

That’s five solid starters returning with a couple of freshmen in imposing post Faye Chartraw and sharp shooting guard Kaela Tyler, who have already had big games this season.

“This is the strongest team Neah Bay has ever had,” said Thompson, a two-time All-NOL player and four-year starter. “We have a lot of girls that know the sport and just have a lot of natural talent, dedication.

“Plus, going to state all [three] years, we have all that passion and we want it so bad.”

Indeed, after winning trophies at state each of the past three seasons — two eighth-place trophies, and last year’s fourth-place hardware — the Red Devils entered this offseason with a great deal of motivation.

They sat and watched as the Red Devil boys reached the 1B championship game last March, and also saw the Colton team that beat them in the 1B quarterfinal go on to win the girls title.

Afterwards, one of the Colton girls said, “We didn’t play 80 games during the summer to come in second.”

It might as well have been an instruction manual for a Neah Bay girls team desperate to match what their male counterparts accomplished last season.

“We realized that Colton, they played games in the offseason, and only a couple of people [from Neah Bay] worked in the offseason,” said Cherish Moss, a three-time All-NOL player whose father, Robert, holds the Neah Bay scoring record.

“We wanted to get a summer league going to where we worked in the offseason as well, everyone.”

The timing couldn’t have been much better, with the Makah Tribe opening a new community gym in Neah Bay this summer.

Several players worked all offseason in the gym and played in community summer league that included a team featuring their head coach.

Halttunen’s team ended up winning the league, but her girls came in second.

“For some of us, it made a big difference,” Cherish Moss said.

“Me and my sister, we purposely didn’t play volleyball this year just so we could work on our games.

“This is my senior year and I just want to be at my top game this year.”

The goals this year are lofty for the Red Devils: Win league, win districts and win a state title.

While the first two have become something of a given in recent years, the last one has never been accomplished by any Neah Bay basketball team, boys or girls.

But even coach Halttunen — diplomatic to an almost excessive degree — was willing to utter “state title” with only the slightest hesitation.

“Last year when the boys made it to the state championship game, the girls really wanted that, too,” Halttunen said.

“It made them feel like they can do that, too, watching the boys do it in basketball, watching the boys do it in football.

“The girls are happy for the boys, but they want it, too.”

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