The players on the Sandpoint girls basketball team aren’t afraid to admit how disappointing last year was for the Bulldogs.
The team finished with a 5-15 record and saw their streak of five straight years with a state appearance come to an end.
But the team started to turn it around as the season progressed and they hope to build off that success when the Bulldogs take the court for their season opener at home against St. Maries on Tuesday.
“I think this year we’re really looking to prove ourselves and show everyone what we’re made of,” senior Dawson Driggs said.
Part of the team’s struggles last year were the result of losing several seniors who provided a wealth of leadership and experience to the team for a handful of years.
This season, the Bulldogs return eight players from last year’s squad including five seniors who have played together since eighth grade. The seniors will need to take on significant leadership roles for the team this year and they are just fine with that.
Senior Maddie Morgan said she prides herself on her work ethic and hopes she can be an example for the underclassmen on the team to look up too.
Driggs said she has really focused on improving her communication with teammates on the court and not being afraid to be vocal when someone isn’t doing something right.
And so far head coach Will Love has been impressed with how vocal the team has been in practice. The Bulldogs celebrate every time someone makes a basket in practice and Love said that is something he and the rest of the coaches on his staff have preached all offseason in order to create a culture of working hard.
“It’s not given to you, you have to do some things to earn it,” Love said, “and so what we need to do is recognize that and I think that builds on itself and makes for a positive environment.”
Morgan and Driggs said a big part of how successful the team will be this season comes down to how close everyone on the team is.
“Last year that chemistry wasn’t necessarily there,” Driggs said. “We weren’t as close so this year I think we’re really going to focus on playing together as a team, playing for each other and taking that time outside of basketball ... is going to be super important because I think that’s going to show out on the court as well.”
Luckily, open gym during the offseason allowed the group to bond and Morgan said they have dinners as a team often and plan on carpooling down to Rathdrum on Saturday to scout league rival Lakeland in their season opener.
“We’re all super tight and its really good because through a long season we all need to be close because it gets tough at times,” Morgan said.
Morgan spent part of her offseason doing something she’s never done before — running on the high school cross country. Morgan did this mostly to improve her conditioning for basketball.
Morgan said she is ready more than ever for the grind of the season and hopes participating in cross country will help her avoid fatigue toward the end of the season.
“Throughout the years I’ve had the shot and I’ve had everything except being in really good shape ... so this year I really switched it up,” Morgan said.
A majority of the players on the varsity team participated in a fall sport including junior Hattie Larson, who helped lead the Bulldogs soccer team to their first state title since 2014 as the starting goalkeeper.
Larson said she got about a week off between the end of the soccer season and the start of the basketball season and its been a challenge to make the transition from one sport to the next so quickly.
“It’s definitely hard to get back into basketball shape because soccer helps with the fitness aspect of it but it’s not the same at all,” Larson said.
But practicing two hours a day for the last few weeks has allowed Larson and the rest of the team to get ready for the season and the Bulldogs are anxious to put last season behind them and return to state this year.
“I think this group is going to come out and play really hard,” Love said. “I think they’re eager to have some success. They’ve been showing that in practice and in how they’ve been approaching things.”
When Sandpoint steps on the court Tuesday, they will be utilizing a zone offense called “Duck” that Love started implementing halfway through last season. The offense allows the Bulldogs to spread the floor with four shooters around the three-point line resulting in driving lines and the occasional wide open three-point shot, Love said.
Love borrowed the concept from another team while watching film after he couldn’t sleep following a loss last season. It was 3 a.m. and for some reason the idea to call the offense “Duck” came to his mind and its stuck ever since.
Heading into his second year as the head coach, Love admitted he learned a lot about himself and his players during his first season.
“We had so many people in new situations that they hadn’t been in before and so I spent a lot of time reflecting on what we did as a team and what I did as a coach,” he said.
“I’ve been spending the time since then trying to put us in a situation where we are successful and we have a lot of fun doing it.”
The Bulldogs don’t have a player over 6 feet and will be undersized compared to most teams they will face this season. To compensate for this, Love said the team will look to use an up tempo playing style.
“One of the keys for us this season is not to slow down at all because we are a really fit team,” Larson said, “so to keep the pace up and really tire the other team out I think is going to be important.”
Driggs enters the season as the Bulldogs starting point guard which means the keys to the offense are in her hands. She said having that responsibility can be stressful when she commits a turnover but she realizes mistakes are apart of learning.
“I mean its going to happen,” Driggs said. “No one’s perfect so I think this year I’m just going to focus on brushing it off, starting fresh and kind of getting that pressure off my shoulders.”
Driggs said she feels like last year the Bulldogs came into the season overconfident having made state five years in a row and wants them to take a different approach to make sure they return to the postseason.
“I think we thought that was a given,” Driggs said, “so this year I definitely think we need to take it game by game and just focus on the next practice, focus on the next game and don’t get too ahead of ourselves.”
Morgan and Driggs are both heading into their final season with the team.
Morgan wants to make memories and connections with her teammates that will last a lifetime.
“You know I’m going to remember good games I had but its going to be more about the friendships and the little things that happen,” Morgan said.
Driggs plans on showing how committed she is to the Bulldogs in her final opportunity to leave a legacy.
“I definitely want to be remembered as someone who gave it there all on the floor,” Driggs said. “Nothing’s given to you so I want people to know how hard I’ve worked outside of practice, putting in those extra hours when no one is around.”
The journey back to state for girls basketball begins 7 p.m. Tuesday when they host St. Maries at Les Rogers Court.