ILWACO — The emergence of frontcourt talent helped Ilwaco to its fourth undefeated Pacific League season in the last five years. With 5-foot-10-inch junior Estella Sheldon, 5-foot-8-inch junior Sunny Kemmer and 5-foot-9-inch sophomore Kylie Gray, the team had an edge in rebounding and in the paint against most opponents.
Ilwaco entered the season with proven backcourt talent. But their offense had for years centered on stars Mackenzie Kaech and Madeline Jacobson (class of 2018) getting the ball inside or running high-low plays to perfection. That was Ilwaco’s game plan, and what opposing teams game-planned to stop.
“We knew we’d have to be more inside-out than before,” senior guard Ebby McMullen said. By that, she means the ball will often come quickly back out after a pass to the interior; Ilwaco isn’t always looking for its power forwards and centers to win one-on-one battles inside or draw the defense, but rather to keep the ball moving. “(This year’s posts) have done a good job making their own game. It’s more (pass) back-to-the-shooter, rotating the ball.”
Part of making their own game in this offense has been taking advantage of this rapid ball movement to get into position a beat ahead of the defense. More than anything, this year’s offense revolves around the creativity and playmaking of guard Erika Glenn. Sometimes, the defense isn’t as attentive to the post.
Kemmer takes advantage. A junior who was long stuck behind Jacobson and Kaech, she has shown a knack for sneaking into the key. She’ll take a pass when the defense is rotating elsewhere, or get in position for an offensive rebound when her defender helps on a drive from the perimeter. Often Glenn will draw defenders and lob it over them to Kemmer.
“I try to get to the block opposite the defense,” Kemmer said. “Guards do a good job finding us; they know where we’re going.”
“Sunny works up the lane and she always finds the right spot,” Gray said. “I call it her sweet spot, on the weakside blocks.”
Gray can usually beat her defender with power in the post. She has usually been the first player off the bench this year; coach Ned Bittner usually keeps at least two of the three in the game at a time.
Gray has played basketball since third grade and spent most of that time honing her inside game. “I’ve always been tall for my age,” she said, though it is her strength that stands out more than anything.
Glenn, her classmate, knows Gray’s game well and excels at passing to her.
“Sunny and Kylie post up well. I try to get it to them — I know it’s hard work posting up, and the more I get it to them, the more they’ll want to do it,” Glenn said. “Estella is real versatile; she’ll hit the three, and play near the net and finish (plays).”
Sheldon plays something closer to the game of a modern power forward or old-fashioned small forward mixing midrange shots with interior play.
“It’s hard having the height of a post (player) with the body of a guard,” Sheldon said.
But it is this versatility that allows her to fill her niche on offense and guard multiple positions on defense. Sheldon contains players on the perimeter and in the post, and excels as a ball-handler and passer, and gets hard fought rebounds at both ends of the court.
In a game against North Beach, as Glenn and the guards had an off-night shooting, the frontcourt trio picked up the slack. Kemmer and Sheldon combined to score 13 of the game’s first 18 points. Kemmer went to work in the post, while Sheldon stretched the defense with a jumper and 3-pointer and hit Kemmer on a four-on-three break. Later on, with Ilwaco still struggling to shoot and leading only 33-21, Glenn ran a high-low play with Kemmer that was reminiscent of the Kaech-to-Jacobson days.
Gray had three steals and a block in that North Beach game, playing disruptive defense during a stretch when Ilwaco was putting the game out of reach. Gray or Kemmer will often be the last line of defense for an Ilwaco team that relies on the press. Both have to cover a lot of range, like a free safety in football, coming up to intercept passes at half-court or going back to protect the rim from press-breaks. Sheldon’s long arms make her dangerous for guards trying to bring the ball up.
“They’ve all three had good games for us at different times this year,” Bittner said. Often, that role has been decisive.
Gray’s 14 rebounds contributed to a 50-34 victory over Raymond. Sheldon had 12 rebounds, seven of them offensive, in a game against South Bend, in which she also put Ilwaco in control with a five-for-five second quarter. In Naselle, Gray and Kemmer helped decide the game in favor of Ilwaco. After scoring just nine points in the first quarter, Ilwaco pulled away in the second by feeding the duo inside.
One of the biggest rebounds of the season came in the finale against second-place Ocosta, with the undefeated league season in jeopardy. Ebby McMullen’s miraculous buzzer-beater to force overtime is what everyone will remember, but Gray helped make it possible. With Ilwaco down by three late, Gray outmuscled Ocosta players for a long rebound on Glenn’s missed 3-pointer. That play, and Kemmer’s put-back on the resulting possession, made the ending possible.
That win capped a 19-1 regular season. The emergence of a deep frontcourt gives Ilwaco a much better chance in post-season play as they pursue their third-straight trip to state. All three have at least another year of high school left, which makes the future promising.