It doesn’t have the same look as the previous state championship teams, but that’s not a bad thing.
After graduating five seniors, eighth-year coach Anne Smith returns two starters to this year’s Lady Wave basketball team to go along with a mix of players who either played on JV or came off the bench last season.
“What makes it different is it’s newer,” Smith said in comparing this group to the previous two teams. “The first year we won it, we lost one senior, Zoey Swisher, and the year before that, was Megan McCormick. The seniors we lost last year had been there from the beginning. We didn’t lose a lot so not a lot of room to put new members on the team. This year, we lost a lot and we have a lot of new faces on the floor.”
Gone are starters Caitlyn Welch, Kaitlyn Hunter and Faith Cornmesser, whose leadership, among other things, played a critical role in Fallon’s second state championship win over Lowry. But this year’s group excites Smith.
“We don’t have that core group anymore. It’s a different group of girls,” she said. “I’m hoping now with another smaller group it will be tight-knit again so we have that closeness we had a couple years ago.”
Returning to the team this season are senior starters Leta and Leilani Otuafi, who recently committed to play college basketball. Also returning are seniors Kenna Hamlin, who missed last year with an ACL injury, Chandler McAlexander and Alexis Jarrett, and sophomore Madison Whitaker. Newcomers include senior Emily Wright, juniors Kinsli Rogne, Karlee Hitchcock and Makenzee Moretto.
Smith said Hamlin has done well in filling the void left by Welch while McAlexander is helping in the paint where Cornmesser dominated last season. Hamlin, who was on the state team as a sophomore, returned to action in the fall with the soccer team and hasn’t missed a step on the court.
“I’ve been having her run the point. She’s been doing a great job. She sees the floor very well,” Smith said. “She shoots the 3-pointer for us. Defensively, she’s aggressive and gets quite a few deflections. She’s really filled a spot that I was worried about. I was worried about ball handlers. She’s doing a good job so far playing against some very good competition.”
McAlexander has come on strong, too, after doing well in the opening weekend tournament that saw Fallon beat Damonte Ranch and Spanish Springs, and lost a close one to Reno.
“She’s tough defensively and works well down underneath. She played hard against Reno,” Smith said. “That’s fantastic when you have a post who can go coast to coast dribbling the ball.”
The Otuafi cousins, who breathe basketball, will be Smith’s go-to duo this winter. Leilani Otuafi is quicker and Leta Otuafi has smooth footwork underneath the basket, making both difficult to defend.
“Lani’s first two steps are so explosive. If she wants to get to the basket, she’ll get to the basket,” Smith said. “There will be very few people who can stop her. She just looks strong. She rebounds very well. Compared to last year, I think she’s quicker. She’s just a phenomenal basketball player. As long as she keeps both the drive and outside shot going, she’ll be hard to stop.”
Regarding Leta Otuafi, Smith said:
“She’s improved as much as Lani has. She’s brought the ball up, breaking the press. She just moves so well. Her footwork underneath the basket is so smooth. She can drive. She’s a defensive giant. She’s not afraid to guard anybody. She has no fear.”
With the new group of players this season, Smith liked what she saw in last weekend’s tournament but said there’s room for improvement. Communication and running the full-court pressure on defense, running the offense under pressure and finishing, and rebounding stood out to the veteran coach.
“Night after night, we have to control the boards, hands down,” she said. “We can’t allow another team to outrebound us. Offensively, we have to get to the basket and finish. Take care of the ball and limit the turnovers. Damonte scored 10 points off turnovers. We can’t allow that and allow teams to take advantage of our turnovers. It was just bad passes and turning the ball over under pressure situations.”
But Smith is pleased where the team is after one weekend of competition before Fallon opens league play in two weeks. Lowry lost many but returns standout Sydney Connors while Fernley lost only one senior. Fallon hasn’t lost a regular-season league game since the 2014-2015 season.
“Lowry’s never a team you don’t prepare for. Fernley looks good this year. They have a lot of girls returning,” Smith said. “Spring Creek lost just a few girls, one or two, and they look to be really good, too. Like I tell the girls, you can lose to any team you play anytime.”
Smith, who’s assisted by Keith Lund, will depend on her senior core to carry the team this season and hopefully to another state appearance and championship.
“Having Lani and Leta there is an absolute strength,” Smith said. “Even though Kenna was out last year, she was at practices and traveled with us. She just has the presence of leadership on the floor. Alexis was there with us last year and she has a presence on the floor. These JV girls who came up, when they played Reno, you saw right away they were uncomfortable, whereas the girls who played before, they’ve already been there so it wasn’t intimidating or overwhelming. There’s something to be said for those returners. We’re a small team. We only kept 10 this year. The dynamic of the team is good. The team chemistry is very important.”