ILWACO — Ilwaco has the most proven talent of any B team west of the Cascades, and brings talented reinforcements to the roster. The team is aiming for a second straight trip to State in Spokane in the final year of the era of Makenzie Kaech, Madeline Jacobson and Eliza Bannister.
The team is extremely well-balanced on offense, with the senior trio and junior Ebby McMullen as proven scoring threats every opponent must account for. Kaech is the do-everything star coming off a First Team All-State selection, dominant in the post and on the wing. Bannister took over numerous games last year, including a District win against Adna. At State, when the Fishermen called time-out down three with 35.5 seconds left against St. George’s, they had plenty of time to go inside to Kaech or Jacobson for a quick two. Instead they called on Bannister for the corner three, which she sank, as she had throughout the playoffs. The Fishermen went on to win in overtime, with Kaech hitting the winning free throws.
McMullen, the point guard and fourth leading scorer at 8.1 points per game, had several 20-point games last season, including 21 against Raymond at District. She sees better health as a key to her season this year. “Last year I could barely run by the end of the season,” due to a balky knee.
Jacobson, the six-foot center, can be an automatic two points when she establishes position. She started her high school career as a dominant offensive rebounder and has expanded her offensive game each season, going from 6.9 points per game her freshman year to 10.6 as a sophomore to 14.6 last year.
“They were solid last year, but I really see that Eliza and Madeline have improved,” coach Ned Bittner said. Both played Roots youth basketball this year for the first time, allowing them to regularly face competition at their own level. “It really opened their eyes up, and they blossomed. Eliza improved taking it to the basket.”
“Madeline has worked on her range, out to the corner of the free throw line,” Bannister said. “Teams won’t be able to handle her. I’ve been going inside more.”
Any of the four returning starters can be a go-to scorer and take over stretches of a game or lift the team out of a slump. Kaech always seems to strike a balance between taking over when needed and letting the game come to her. The group by now has experience playing together and feeding off each other’s strengths.
Building effective lineups
The team went with a short rotation last year. This year it must build effective lineups without the graduated Isabel Benenati and Ellie Kulm. Fortunately, a group of high-ceiling underclassmen join the varsity, and senior Chandelle Thomas, the second player off the bench last year, is ready to slide higher on the depth chart. “Last year we went with six or seven players,” Bittner said. “This year, I can see us playing a rotation of 8 to 10 players in some games.”
Freshman Erika Glenn steps right onto the varsity team, becoming the first freshman to do so since Kaech and Jacobson. In fact, she was already playing varsity during summer basketball, and has shown smoothness and confidence in practice scrimmages.
“I only play a freshman if I think she can handle it mentally and physically,” Bittner said. “We played Makenzie in her freshman year, and she reminds me a bit of Makenzie in some ways in terms of her ability, but at the same time she’s a very different type of player…She’ll help us at guard. I don’t see any one outstanding skill; she’s got good balance to her game.”
Thomas brings experience and shooting ability. “She can hit the three-pointer, and she makes good entry passes in to Madeline,” Bittner said.
Sophomore Sunny Kemmer provides depth in the post. Bittner sees Estella Sheldon, a 5’9” sophomore, coming in at either forward spot. Faith Simonsen, also a sophomore, is a player Bittner sees as a zone-buster due to her shooting ability. “She’ll come in, and probably be left open, and knock down some shots,” Bittner said.
Junior Ariana Bell, an All-League softball player who has wrestled in the past, brings her talents to the hardwood this year. To begin the year, she will swing between junior varsity and varsity so she can develop her game. “She has a wrestler’s mentality,” Bannister said. “She gets aggressive.”
With more depth, Bittner feels emboldened to mix up his defenses. Last year, the team went with a zone, to conserve energy and avoid foul trouble. “I want to get back to pressure and man defense,” Bittner said.
The Fishermen were fifth place at State last season, beating St. George’s before losing to eventual champ Davenport and dropping a consolation game to Wahkiakum. Wahkiakum’s Peyton Souvenir closed out a sensational career with a monster game against Ilwaco; the Mules will still be tough, but replacing Souvenir will be no easy task. Kalama, the other top Western Washington contender, sustains heavy losses, including Parker Esary and Kaelyn Shipley.
Out East, Davenport is a natural favorite as the defending champion. The Gorillas didn’t really dominate the whole season (they were 0-3 against St. George’s), but they were the last team standing in March, when their aggressive man defense held Napavine to 31 points, Ilwaco to just 20 points and Kalama to 37 in the title game.
The Fishermen will sharpen their skills with very tough non-league games on either side of the Christmas break, hosting Montesano Dec. 22, then going up to the Lynden Christmas tournament to face 2A champion Lynden on the 27th and Kings on Dec. 28.