STORY & PHOTOS BY GLENN NELSON
AUBURN, Wash. - When I asked Adam Barrett, the frequently apoplectic coach of Auburn Riverside, if he knew what he needed, he had a quick reply.
"A seat belt?" he asked.
It might be the only thing to keep Barrett's butt planted on the Riverside bench, but that's not how I meant it. This season may be a wild ride for Barrett and his Ravens, one that could very well end with their hoisting a Washington State 3A championship trophy in March. He ought to buckle up for that.
An astonishing notion, I know. After all, Julie Futch, who led Riverside to consecutive 4A tournament appearances, is averaging 10 minutes a game as a freshman at Oregon State. And, in one of those good-news-bad-news kind of moves, Riverside dropped a classification but to one where nationally ranked Chief Sealth resides.
Oops? Not exactly, for the calvary has arrived - en masse. Point guard Mercedes Wetmore and forward Kara Jenkins, a heralded duo for years on the youth circuit, have arrived and are good enough as freshmen to command major minutes in Barrett's regular rotation. They were preceded last year by another youth circuit phenom, Nichole Jackson, who started most of the year and will run the team this season.
Futch notwithstanding, proven Division I talent remains. Forward Stephanie Wilber has signed with Arizona State, while junior guard Katie Grad already has committed to play for Washington State.
And that's not even the kicker. The last member of the cavalry was more like a gift from the basketball gods, falling out of the sky and right onto Barrett's lap. That would be Ireti Amojo, another strong, athletic swing player who can handle, shoot, pass and defend. And, oh yeah, she is from Germany.
"I've had exchange students before," Barrett said, "but I don't think any of them even made the program - before now."
This is another one of those good-news-bad-news deals, however. Being a foreign exchange student, Amojo is on a one-year lease. Which, along with the last season of Wilber, means Auburn Riverside will have to win the state title this year.
I think the Ravens very well may do that.
Sealth looked less than imposing on Saturday, but that was to be expected with a new coaching staff. On the other hand, not only did deposed coach Ray Willis illegally recruit much of the team, he left its strategic cupboard bare. Plus the behavior of Sealth's adult following has not toned down, few of them seem to have learned much from the disastrous year their program has endured, which means neither have many of the kids. After all the reprogramming and sensitivity training and another season with an even bigger target on their backs, Christina Nzekwe and Regina Rogers could not be faulted for counting the days until they get out of Dodge and start school at UCLA.
Furthermore, there were basketball reasons for the near-success Issaquah enjoyed last year against the Seahawks in spite not even tipping the size scale against them. Sealth had trouble with Issaquah's speed on defense and its mobility, perimeter prowess and unselfishness on offense. Now their best ballhandler last year, Colleen Betteridge, is playing in the Pac-10 and Auburn Riverside plays even more ferocious fullcourt pressure and has more overall talent.
While most teams struggled and experimented their way through Saturday's 10-minute, jamboree mini-games, Auburn Riverside appeared almost at midseason form. Barrett runs a tightly choreographed crew, and the choreography is a year-round endeavor. That's why the Ravens smashed a Roosevelt team that, with Washington signee Mackenzie Argens and a solid supporting cast, will be a force in KingCo 4A, and ran away from a Mount Tahoma team that will contend for a Narrows League title.
If healthy, which was an issue last season, Wilber will exceed Futch's impact on the Riverside offense. She scored 30 points during 20 minutes against Roosevelt and Mount Tahoma, whose centers, Argens and Shauniece Samms, are the two best shot-blockers in the state. Wilber, who is 6-foot-1, is spry and looks much more like a player who will spend her four years at Arizona State on the wings, shooting threes, attacking off the dribble and utilizing a very fundamentally sound post game when the opportunities arise.
While Wilber supplies the star power, Grad will be the team's on-court spiritual leader. She is like a Bulldog on a bone on defense, face-guarding opponents in the open floor and taking charges like they were weekly manicures. Offensively, she can shoot the three and is a fearless finisher inside.
A team that can run, walk, score inside and out and, mostly, defend as if the day's meals depended on it is a team that will make you leave your seat.
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 girl's 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). He can be reached at email@example.com.