At the close of a third consecutive 25-plus win season last March, it looked as if the West Springfield girls basketball team might finally be on the precipice of a down year. First Team All-Met forward Logan Battle, Honorable Mention All-Met guard April Robinson and Second Team All-Patriot District guard Jordan Miller were set to graduate in the spring, leaving the Spartans with some rebuilding to do in the offseason.
Yet in his typically uncompromising style, head coach Bill Gibson has picked up the pieces and kept his juggernaut humming along with a full head of steam. Whereas he relied on the experienced play of his seniors last year, Gibson is now counting on the young talent of a new crop of players to keep his team floating near the top of the Northern Region.
The Spartans are off to a 5-0 start to the 2012-13 season, even with two freshmen and no seniors in their starting five.
“It’s a lot of growing pains,” said Gibson, now in his 28th year at the helm. “But the kids are handling it well. They’re adapting and trying to do what I’m asking them to do. They’re playing hard, and that’s the biggest thing.”
West Springfield resembles the Oakton girls basketball program in its ability to churn out winning seasons and trophies even when it has to rebound from critical senior class departures. The Cougars — also run by a longtime coach in Fred Priester (563 career wins) — are currently 6-1 this season despite losing seven seniors from last year’s squad, including two premier guards in Katherine and Caroline Coyer.
The Spartans and the Cougars have traded region titles each of the past three years, with Oakton winning two of those titles and West Springfield winning one in 2010-11. According to their coaches, the recipe to consistent success doesn’t lie in some special coaching formula; it’s just about getting good players with solid work ethics.
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken crap,” Gibson said. “I’ve got some great kids. I’ve been fortunate. I get kids that are willing to play ball and put up with my tantrums and try to understand what I’m doing. Behind it I get on them, but for a reason. I want them to do as well as we’ve done and know what it feels like to be winning.”
Any observer of a West Springfield game will realize the Spartans’ success is due to more than just good talent. They’re a well-disciplined team on both ends of the floor, working the ball around efficiently on offense and applying proper spacing and pressure on defense. It’s the byproduct of sound basketball instincts and adherence to a restless coach who never stops barking instructions to his players from the sideline.
“Even if you have an open shot, we like to give one extra pass because you can get a layup off that,” junior forward Amy Berglund said about the team’s offense. “So we just keep moving the ball.”
Berglund, a mainstay in the starting lineup since her freshman year, returns as the Spartans’ most experienced player this season. Despite sitting out the fourth quarter, the 5-foot-9 captain racked up a game-high 18 points in Tuesday night’s 57-36 win against Robinson. All but four of the rest of the team’s points came from underclassmen, a sign of the youth movement carrying West Springfield this winter.
Starting freshman center Maura D’Anna, who put up nine points against Robinson, provides an imposing presence in the paint with her six-foot frame and soft touch around the basket. The other freshman in the starting rotation, 5-foot-9 guard Shelby Haynes, gives the Spartans a reliable ball-handler with good court vision. Freshman guard Haley Blankinship is another newcomer who can come off the bench and provide valuable minutes.
Then there’s Jasmine Taylor, a 5-foot-11 freshman forward who came off the bench Tuesday to give West Springfield a spark in transition. Taylor, who scored all 11 of her points in the second half, has the speed to run the floor and the quickness and length necessary to hound opponents on the defensive end. Along with sophomore Alanna Backus, Taylor was assigned to guard Robinson’s top scorer, Dhyamond Crenshaw, who was held scoreless in the second half.
“[Taylor] adds that extra bit of athleticism that most of us don’t have on the team,” Berglund said. “She’s kind of like our little Logan Battle.”
The Spartans, who haven’t lost a regular season game against a Northern Region opponent since Feb. 2, 2009, have a ways to go before they start looking as sharp as they did toward the end of last season. If history is any indication, though, they will be ready to contend for a fourth straight Patriot District title by the time February arrives.
“If we grow like we can, we’ll be in the thick of things at the end,” Gibson said. “It depends on their maturity as we go along, that they’re understanding and making that progress every day.”