Bulldog girls tip off season with legitimate state title hopes

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(Photo by ERIC PLUMMER) Pictured from left to right are seniors Calli Laybourne, Heather Yunek, Katherine Kaul, Ciera Bailey, Grace Kirscher, Audrey Mattila and Trinity Golder.

Boast superior depth, speed and shooting

By ERIC PLUMMER

Sports editor

SANDPOINT — Could this finally be the year the Sandpoint girls basketball team breaks through for its first state title?

Let’s ask the head coach, who has coached the Bulldog girls to a second place finish in the 90s, and two third place finishes in 2014 and 2015. In short, Duane Ward knows what it’s going to take to win it all, and he knows he has the horses to make a good run at it as the 2017 season tips off.

“When we get everybody healthy, I think we can contend for a state title. I might as well say it, because I believe it,” said Ward, with decades of coaching experience backing his belief. “There’s no reason why we can’t. Everything has to go right, but we have the potential to do it. We have as good a shot, if not better, than we’ve had in the past.”

Buoying Ward’s confidence is senior Grace Kirscher, entering her fourth season as a starter for the Bulldogs, having gone to state the previous three times.

The Eastern Washington University-bound Kirshcer harbors high hopes, setting a goal of winning a state title in her final attempt. So what will it take?

“Trusting who’s on the team, being able to rely on each and every one of us,” claimed Kirshcer. “That’s pretty much what basketball is.”

Last year the 6-foot-1 Kirscher led the Bulldogs averaging 16 points, five boards, three assists and three steals a game, and Ward will lean heavily on the versatile senior once again.

“Grace plays everywhere for us, a trail guard, a wing, plays inside, kind of everywhere,” described Ward. “A ball handler when we need it, an excellent passer, can score outside and inside, good perimeter defense. She’s pretty much our go-to player.”

Part of the high hopes stem from one of the quickest and fastest girls teams in recent memory, and that doesn’t even include three seniors who will start the year injured in Trinity Golder, an explosive scorer and strong rebounder who posted a handful of 20 plus point nights last year, and Audrey Mattila and Katherine Kaul, both two year varsity players and excellent perimeter defenders.

While the trio, all of whom are due back in December, gets healthy senior Ciera Bailey, a transfer from Friday Harbor, Washington, and sophomores Maddie Morgan, Dawson Driggs and Brooklyn Steiger will bring a lot of octane and scoring to the floor. Ward called Bailey a good shooter and ball handler and strong on-ball defender, and she’ll handle the point guard duties.

“We’re really young, trying to plug the holes until we get these kids healthy,” said Ward, who also has to replace 6-2 post Grace Hicks, who is concentrating on volleyball. “They’re a pretty good shooting team, quick, get after you on defense. Maddie and Brooklyn are aggressive.”

Even though they’re injured, Ward said the seniors have been at every practice and deserve a lot of the credit for establishing a winning culture in the program.

After going 10-13 last year and losing twice at state, the Bulldogs return with more depth and scoring options than Ward has ever had. They’ll go 10 deep, which is huge luxury when you want to play fast and run.

“We’re a good shooting team, we haven’t had that in the past. We have some kids who can bring up the ball, and Grace can get a little bit of rest from that,” predicted Ward. “Our defense is going to be a strength for us. We’ve been trying to push the ball hard, this team wants to get out and go.”

The Bulldogs don’t have a ton of height, and will rely on 5-11 senior Calli Laybourne to handle the glass until the 5-11 Golder can return. Freshman Hattie Larson brings length to the floor, and will see minutes on a deep bench.

“It’s going to be a real team. I’d like to get the five or six best on the court at the same time, it’s hard to do, those kids are so close,” said Ward of his valuable depth. “They’re good at playing together as a team.”

Per usual, the Bulldogs will get battle tested against the 5A teams from the North, who always seem in the mix for state titles. It’s easy to play scared, but Ward doesn’t feel this team has any fear in its DNA, and will get after it for 32 minutes a night.

“I always tell the kids to get out, get after it, prove to them, don’t give them more respect than what they deserve,” said Ward, admitting rebounding is going to be huge. “They don’t know their limits. They can do a lot of things that they don’t know they can do.”

Mattila, launching jumpers at practice with a cart supporting a boot on her ankle, can’t wait until the Bulldogs are at full strength. Speed is a weapon in basketball, and the Bulldog girls have it in spades on both ends of the floor.

“We’re really fast, with good shooters. We defend, it’s one of the best defensive teams that I’ve seen,” claimed Mattila. “We have a real diversity. Everyone can play everywhere.”

Sandpoint tips off the season tonight against Lake City, at 4 p.m. at Les Rogers Court.

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