The team’s loss was as big as its gain.
After losing one of its best players, the Lady Wave basketball team regrouped and several stepped up and accepted the challenge to fill the noticeable void.
Fallon never wavered.
Fallon never faltered.
Anne Smith’s defensive-focused team continued its unbeaten streak after losing sophomore post Leta Otuafi as juniors Faith Cornmesser and Kaitlyn Hunter performed exceptional in her absence. However, Otuafi, who was told she could have a patella tendon tear and miss the rest of the season, as well as travel ball, came back late. The diagnosis was tendinitis and she was slowly introduced back onto the court.
“There had been so many games without her that I didn’t want to just throw her back in,” Smith said of Otuafi.
Otuafi matured even more off the court as the injury served as a blessing in disguise. She gained more perspective from the coaches while her teammates learned to play without her in the lineup. Fallon thrived both on and off the court.
“The girls had to step up and they did,” Smith said. “No one wanted to lose Leta. I had some girls step up.”
Fallon completed its second consecutive unbeaten league season with a full lineup and then proceeded to crush Lowry in a rematch of last year’s regional championship. With Otuafi in the starting lineup for the first time since December, Fallon –as a team – put arguably its best defensive stand in recent memory by allowing only 15 points to the Buckaroos.
The Lady Wave enters today’s state tournament with a chip on its shoulder.
Last year, Fallon, which lost to Lowry on a last-second 3-pointer in the regional title game, was dominated by Spring Valley in the state semifinals in Reno. The Las Vegas school focused on the Otuafi cousins (Leta and Lani) and forced Fallon out of its game.
This year, though, looks to be a different story that could end with a happy ending.
“You have to keep them grounded and remind them of all the little things that got them to where they are,” Smith said of Fallon, which has never won an NIAA-sanctioned state championship. “It was very disheartening at regionals (last year). It put a dampener going to state. They had a fantastic season. It was really hard for the younger girls.”
Fallon lost only two seniors last year and will lose just one this year. The experience from two devastating losses in last year’s playoffs is a catalyst for the 2017 team. Fallon won its first regional title last weekend and wants the same success when it takes on Virgin Valley this morning and then fight for the crown on Saturday.
“The experience and more maturity helps. The coaches work hard to keep them grounded,” Smith said.
This year’s team is different, too.
The experience and maturity from last year’s record-setting season are a bonus. But this year’s team is more rounded and poses multiple threats. Teams cannot get away with isolating certain players this time.
Lani Otuafi leads the team with 12.4 points per game while her cousin, Leta, averages 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds. Junior Caitlyn Welch and Cornmesser put up near 10 points per game while Cornmesser is the team’s best rebounder with 8.3 boards per game. Lone senior Zoey Swisher, sophomore Kenna Hamlin and sophomore Alexis Jarrett have also been a major influence, playing in all 25 games.
“That dynamic is better than last year. There’s just too many on the floor,” Smith said.
Fallon has eight players who could start any game and handle the pressure of being on varsity with ease. They showed it when their star player went down earlier in the season and are prepared to bring home a state championship. After all, good things happen to the Greenwave in Las Vegas. Both the wrestling (2016) and volleyball (1999) teams won their first state title down south.
“We’re going in cautiously optimistic and in survive and advance mode,” Smith said. “We don’t talk about (the records). This year has been a lot different than last year. They’re floating under the radar.”
After this weekend, though, it will be hard to miss Fallon off the radar if it does what carried the team throughout the season. Gritty and hard-nosed defense, well-executed offense and suffocating pressure powered the Lady Wave to dominating opponents this winter.
Now is a good time for Fallon to add to the trophy collection and bring home the school’s first-ever state title.
Thomas Ranson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.