STORY & PHOTOS BY GLENN NELSON
|Left, Ashley Todd (No. 15) and Ashley Corral at the 2004 HoopGurlz Challenge and, right, at the State 4A softball tournament (photo courtesy Kevin Todd)|
They first were the product of their soccer moms, already playing at the highest level in their sport and well on their way to becoming elite-level athletes. Knowing the latter better than anyone, the basketball dads stepped in, looking to take advantage of all that wonderful conditioning, sense of spacing and burgeoning athleticism. They all compromised and did both, soccer and basketball, and that's how the Mill Creek Wolfpack was born.
In its hey day, the Wolfpack was a small but aggressive, savvy, and technically advanced select girls basketball team. And that was back when the girls were sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
Today, they are high-school sophomores, and three offspring of that Wolfpack team - Ashley Corral of Prairie, Eryn Jones of Meadowdale and Kristi Kingma of Jackson - not only helped guide their schools into the Washington State 4A girl's basketball tournament, they are the leaders of an extraordinary Class of 2008 crop of young point guards. Ashley Andrews of Tumwater, Keri Arendse of Burlington-Edison and Brittany Janz of Anacortes were all-tournament selections last week during the 3A event. Tabitha Tomlinson is the starting point guard for 4A qualifier Puyallup and only Monica Nevi of Hazen has been sidelined during the postseason.
Shortly after Jackson qualified for the first 4A berth in its history, Gregg Kingma had a funny feeling the basketball Gods would not pass on this confluence of talent and former youth-basketball teammates.
Kingma, Corral & Todd at a reunion
in Vancouver (photo courtesty Kevin
"I just knew we'd play Corral," Kingma said. And, sure enough, Jackson and Prairie were drawn to be first-round opponents on Wednesday. Which means Kingma will be going head to head for the first time in high-school play against Corral, depending on the condition of the Prairie super-soph's chronically injured left ankle, which Corral turned near the beginning of the Falcon's loss on Saturday to Lincoln.
"I'm really excited to face Ashley again," Kristi Kingma said of their first-round date. "After being teammates for four years, we really became close friends and stay very close in touch today. Our style of play is so similiar - we both love to push the ball and create easy looks for our teammates. Playing with Ashley was one of the best experiences of my career; we complemented each other very well and caused other teams a lot of chaos."
Corral said, "When they made officially made it to the state tournament this year, Todd's dad sent me a picture of the two of them with a caption saying 'We'll see you in Tacoma!' I was excited for them to get to state because I know how hard each of them have worked to get there. I thought it would be really neat if we would get the chance to play them, but I really didn't think it would happen.
"Kristi's dad called right after the draw and told me that we would be playing each other in the first round. I was very happy that I would get the chance to be on the court with them again. If they were playing any other team I would be cheering them on just as I know they would be doing the same for me. Getting the chance to play against good friends and such great athletes in a big game like this is special. "
If the basketball Gods maintain their sense of irony, either Corral or Kingma could run into their old buddy, Jones, in the semifinals. Because they play in the WesCo South, Jones and Kingma face each other at least twice a year and, because of the familiarity as well as their competitive nature, the matchups are donnybrooks. This season, they split a pair of games, each winning on the other's home floor.
"Playing with Eryn Jones has been one of the most fun things I have ever gotten to do," Kingma said. "We became best friends on and off the court, and wore matching wristbands and anklets. ... Facing her over the past few years during WesCo action has been fun, but such a challenge because playing against her has always been a battle between us. When we match up against each other,it always brings out the competitive side in both of. It's a complete war against one another because we both respect each other so much. After the game it's all laughs and hugs, but during the game it is absolute war."
Eryn Jones of Meadowdale
That much is guaranteed when Jackson plays Prairie or Meadowdale because three other Jackson sophomores - Ashly Bruns, Sara O'Neal and Ashley Todd - also are Wolfpack alums. Todd and Bruns are starters and the second- and third-leading scorers on the team, after Kingma.
Ashley Naylor, the second-leading scorer at Cascade, also played for the Wolfpack. For those keeping score, that makes four Ashleys on the team at the same time. So they all took to calling them all by their last names. They're still Bruns, Corral, Naylor and Todd to each other and their former Wolfpack mates.
The three point guards each have their unique style. Corral is cocksure, fiesty and flashy. Jones is a great shooter who twice has beaten Garfield with late or buzzer-beating jumpers. And Kingma is a long and freakishly athletic penetrator.
Most of the old Wolfpack stay true to their soccer roots. Corral this season was the Greater St. Helens League's Offensive Player of the Year, while Kingma was a first-team, WesCo all-league forward. They played since the fourth grade for Snohomish United, a select soccer team so successful (they won the state Premier Cup as seventh graders), it forced the whole group to scramble between athletic commitments.
The biggest scramble occurred during Snohomish United's run to the state title. On a single Saturday, five girls played a State Cup game in Vancouver, then chucked their cleats for their sneakers and played two games in the Great Eight, an elite, invitational basketball tournament. They went three-for-three.
"It was really grueling," Gregg Kingma said. "But they did awesome."
Kristi Kingma of Jackson
Kingma, a former star at Anacortes High School and Seattle Pacific, was the assistant on the basketball team, but credits the head coach, Rich Bruns, who had a successful run at Lynnwood High as a head coach and assisted at Simon Fraser before helping found the Wolfpack. He had seven "so-called point guards" and molded them into a dominant team by assigning roles, having rules for each position on offense, playing all-out pressure on defense and uptempo but organized on offense.
Every so often, the Jackson girls will execute a backdoor cut or make a defensive rotation that makes their parents look at each other and say, "There's the Wolfpack coming out in them."
Kristi Kingma mostly ran the point back in those days, with Jones primarily a shooting guard. Bruns' daughter, one of the Ashlys, was a forward type, as was another Ashley, Todd. Rich Bruns and Gregg Kingma scouted the other teams and devised game plans, which they say the girls executed well.
"It was a coach's dream," Bruns said. "We had smart kids, kids who wanted to be there and work hard. We had kids who could run and go for a long time at the pace we played. They also respected what we knew as coaches and went out and did it. Then they would ask for more."
One of the Wolfpack's main rivals, the Island Rage, made up the sophomore foundation, including star guard Brittany Janz, for the Anacortes High School team that pushed Chief Sealth to the brink in the 3A semifinals last week. Select basketball not being as organized as soccer, the Wolfpack could not claim state titles, as the Snohomish United did, but they clearly were the most dominant and organized team of their era.
One of the Wolfpack's biggest wins came in the 2004 version of the HoopGurlz Challenge, which has become a winter showcase of elite, middle-school-aged select teams held at the Furtado Center, the practice facility for the Seattle SuperSonics and Storm. The field that year included a veritable who's who of what is now the top young high-school talent from Puget Sound down to Portland - among them, Daidra Brown of Kennedy, Candace Chambers, Lindsay Gummersal and Brittany Roland of upstart Seattle Prep, Brittany Gray of Bainbridge, Nichole Jackson of Auburn Riverside, Amanda Juarez of Lake Washington, Nevi of Hazen, Mandy Saintz of Bothell, Tomlinson of Puyallup, Alyssa Shoji of Issaquah and Madison Yakaboski, the freshman at Mount Si who made first team all-KingCo 3A. Alex Earl and Michelle Jenkins, two sophomore starters from Southridge of Beaverton, Ore., that started the season as the nation's No. 1 high-school team, also played on a team from Oregon called the Xtreme.
Corral and Kingma were named to all-tournament team and dueled in the eighth-grade championship game. Corral, by that time had moved to Vancouver, and had Earl and Jenkins as teammates, but the Wolfpack, the little team that could, prevailed 39-26. Wednesday will be the first time since that game that Corral and Kingma will face each other on a basketball court.
Ashley Corral of Prairie
"She had her headband, wristbands, Nike Shox, her And1 gear and always played hard," Ashley Todd said of Corral. "On the Wolfpack, Corral, Kristi, Bruns and I would fly around and cause problems for teams that were taller than us. We pressed and caused turnovers, passed and moved the ball around for easy buckets and threes.
We played together, which I think is why we were so successful. We had so much fun in our weekend tournaments and, even though we're now at different high schools, I still cheer her on."
The cheering will be put on hold at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, when Jackson and Prairie square off at the Tacoma Dome. Rich Bruns remembers Corral as being a little less offensively developed than the other Wolfpack girls. "But she was powerful and dominating," he said. "She was intimidating. Now she has put the intimidation and domination with a way better offensive game. She's a great player."
With the exception of its 6-foot-2 junior post, Brittany Eskridge, Jackson is a team very much like the Wolfpack - guard-oriented and fiesty, led by Kingma's athleticism and aggressiveness with the basketball.
The Timber Wolves are in sharp contrast to Prairie, which may be the biggest team in the tournament. The Falcons' primary exception, of course, is their little, magical point guard who still plays with a chip on her shoulder. With her, the spirit of the Wolfpack lives on in Southwest Washington.
"I loved walking into gyms being the short, little guard-filled team that nobody respected, and then coming out on top at the end," Corral said. "We would run most teams into the ground with our speed. Playing each other in one of the biggest games in our careers will definitely be a highlight and one of the most memorable games I have played."
Ashley Todd of Jackson
Ashly Bruns of Jackson
Our Complete 2006 State 4A Tournament Coverage Menu:
4A Tournament Gallery
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Elite 11: Tigers Roar
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A 4A Family Affair
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4A Tournament Recap
MVP, all-tournament team with profiles and comments, all scores and statistical leaders.
Practice Makes ... Third
Dara Zack practiced for the moment and came through for University, earning the Titans their highest finish at State.
'Desperation Mode' for Ike
After a quarterfinal loss, Eisenhower tossed all inhibitions aside, and plotted a course to fourth place.
Block Party for T-Birds
Mount Tahoma's unorthodox, frantic style, led by Shauniece Samms' shot-blocking, powered the T-Birds through the consolation bracket for a fifth-place finish.
Big and Defensive
Lewis & Clark and Prairie reach the State 4A championship game with great size and defense.
Stock on the Rise
The Kentwood junior has been the talk of the State 4A tournament and a hit with college coaches and scouts.
Pick Your Poison
There is so much to fear from the four 4A semifinalists, it's difficult to choose which to fear most.
Remember the Titans
When considering the candidates for 2006's darlings of destiny, Angie Bjorklund and University stand out from the pack.
Wednesday 4A Photos
Images from furious first-round action at the Tacoma Dome.
The Wolfpack is Back
One amazing youth basketball team helped produce three of the region's top young point guards, plus the core of the Jackson High School team that qualified for the State 4A
tournament for the first time in its history.
4A Bracket Breakdown
How we see the tournament unfolding, round by round and game by game, to a University vs. Auburn Riverside final featuring stars Angie Bjorklund and Julie Futch.
Elite Eleven: You Go, Girls
Three women - Joyce Walker, Penny Gienger and Kathy Gibson - enjoyed outstanding, role-setting seasons in girl's high-school basketball..
State 4A Team Capsules
Essential information on tournament participants, with power rankings by HoopGurlz.com (not predicted finish). Individual team capsules also can be accessed by clicking team
name from front-page list of qualifiers.
Know where all the seniors are headed after the tournament. We have the most complete list anywhere of Division I commitments by players from Washington and Oregon.
Glenn Nelson is the publisher of HoopGurlz.com and the editor-in-chief of Scout Media (www.Scout.com), an online sports network and magazine-publishing company and subsidiary of Fox Interactive Media. Glenn also founded and coached
the Dragons and Northwest HoopGurlz select girls basketball teams. He previously was a longtime, national-award-winning basketball columnist and writer for The Seattle
Times. His work also has appeared in several national magazines and books. He is co-author of "Rising Stars: The Ten Best Players in the NBA" (Rosen Publishing, 2002).