Gonzaga Prep girls basketball coach Mike Arte knew he had a rebuilding project of sorts this season.
He graduated four starters off the 2010-11 team. Not only did he have to find replacements – including finding a way to replace Tia Presley, who became the Greater Spokane League’s all-time career scoring leader – but he also had to figure out a way to blend in some younger faces.
All that aside, Arte thought he had the makings of a talented team.
“Top to bottom, this is the most talent I’ve ever had,” Arte said on a preseason questionnaire.
Arte obviously knew what he was talking about.
He tinkered with different starting combinations early before settling on four seniors to go with four-year starter Lindsay Stockton. They are Cassie Anderson, a transfer from Bloomington, Minn.; Sarah Barnes, who saw minimal time last year; Megan Steilen, the second player off the bench a year ago; and Jasmine Brown, who sat out last year after suffering an ACL injury during the summer.
None of the seniors has scored at the rate Presley did a year ago. In fact, Stockton is averaging a modest, team-leading 12.1 points per game. But the contributions have been spread around. The team’s bench is deeper.
Junior Madison Wright, sophomore Hannah Caudill and three freshmen – Laura Stockton, Oona Harrington and Otiona Gildon – make up a solid bench. Any could probably start, especially Wright and Stockton.
Nine of 10 players have played between 278 minutes and 512.
“People get so concerned with who starts,” Arte said. “I’m much more concerned with finishers, and we have 12 finishers.”
Even after this season, when G-Prep graduates all of its starters, Arte likes the future.
“We love developing kids,” Arte said. “We’ll be strong for a long time because we put value in our junior varsity team and value in our freshman team.”
One of what Arte calls a “program player” is Barnes.
“I’ve come a long way – from not playing hardly last year to starting this year and getting about 20 minutes a game,” Barnes said.
Brown was a starter as a sophomore before injuring her knee last year.
“I’ve definitely improved this year,” Brown said. “It’s just great to be back. I was pretty confident we’d be good. I played some with them last summer and from what I saw I thought they (the younger players) looked really good.”
“I thought it would take time with a lot of the newbies,” Steilen said. “We’ve meshed really well and adding Cassie really helped us.”
Anderson was a two-year starter at the school she attended in Minnesota. She moved to Spokane in early June and had an opportunity to play AAU ball with Lindsay Stockton and Brown.
“It definitely took us a while to get our groove this season,” Anderson said.
The Bullpups came within a game of advancing to Tacoma a year ago.
Stockton, in particular, was highly driven to get her team to state this season.
“I knew it could take time, but I knew we’d figure it out in the end because the new girls were talented,” Stockton said.
Arte had no problem throwing the young players into the fire from the opening tip this season.
“We put really high expectations on them this year, even the younger ones,” Arte said. “They’ve responded with focus and commitment real well.”
Arte sees the offensive balance as a blessing, not a curse.
“We’re trying to find each other in the offense,” he said. “We’re not counting on one or two people to score. Many times it’s a different person each game. We’re hard to guard because you don’t know who’s going to score.”
And if the Bullpups manufacture offense out of their full-court pressure, it makes matters worse for opponents.
Anderson has appreciated the contributions of who she calls “the little kids.”
“They always come in and put forth a good effort,” said Anderson, who had a game-high 19 points in G-Prep’s state-qualifying, 69-35 win over Olympia.
Anderson likes the Bullpups’ chances at state. G-Prep (18-5) opens against fourth-ranked Woodinville (22-2) Thursday at 12:15 p.m.
“We definitely have a good shot,” she said, “if we keep playing like we did against Central Valley and (Olympia).”
Arte expects his team to be an underdog at state.
“We’re certainly probably a darkhorse,” he said. “Only reason I’d say that is Central Valley will get all the limelight because they were ranked in the state all year and people saw them all summer. We don’t mind coming in under the radar at all.”
He won’t let his team have low expectations, though.
“We’re going to talk about what we should do there,” he said. “As well as we’re playing right now, why not us? Why not the little school. Why not have that (state title) expectation. That’s how we’re going to go over there. You’re going to have to play well to beat us. We’ll be ready.”