STORY & PHOTOS BY GLENN NELSON
SEATTLE, Wash. - In a way, they were like a punchline to a bad joke - you could see them coming a mile away. Stardom was being prophesied for Angie Bjorklund back when
she was a seventh grader. Same with Regina Rogers, who was a self-conscious but powerful giant for the Puget Sound
Emeralds. Ditto for Sarah Morton, who helped Washington Triple Threat to a ninth-place finish at 13U AAU Nationals.
Further proof that life is but an eyeblink, those three are this week starting their senior seasons in high school, part of a 2007 class in Washington that may be the
most extraordinary in the state's history.
Yet part of this renaissance, if it is one, will erode after this season, when most of its members will leave to play for colleges in other states, continuing a talent drain of Washington's top
girl's basketball talent.
"You can only afford to lose so many before the whole culture feels like it just doesn't want to stay at home," Garfield High School girl's basketball coach Joyce Walker. "That's
worrisome. I'd like to see something like what happened with the U.W. men's program, where kids starting staying home and having success. The first crew that tries to start
something (on the women's side) is going to have to understand there will be some growing pains."
This year, the pain may not have been so severe. Though the University of Washington signed a class so good, it was ranked No. 12 nationally by HoopGurlz.com, some critics
say this should have been the year for the Huskies to begin a trend of keeping more of the top local kids, particularly kids of color, at home.
None of that takes the luster away from the state's 2007 class. How extraordinary is it? Let us count the ways:
"There are so many more girls playing basketball, and so many kids playing basketball year-round," said Walker, who most consider the greatest female player produced in
this state and who still holds LSU and SEC scoring records. "It's produced a lot of parity on the high-school level. You see a one-two punch on almost every team. That was
almost unheard of. And now you see college coaches putting the Pacific Northwest swing on their recruiting calendars every year. That says a lot."
- Headed by Bjorklund, of University High School in Spokane, Wash., who is ranked No. 2, six players from the state of Washington are among the top 66 in the nation,
according to HoopGurlz.com. Only California with 15, Illinois with 10 and Georgia with eight had more. California is the most populous state in the country, while Illinois is No.
5, Georgia No. 10 and Washington No. 15.
- Bjorklund and Alex Montgomery, a Georgia Tech signee out of Lincoln High in Tacoma, Wash., are preseason HoopGurlz High School All-Americans.
- Twelve players from the state - again headed by Bjorklund, who is headed to Tennessee - have signed with major Division I programs. Another 16 have signed with
mid-major DI programs, including Amanda Best of Woodinville, Wash., and Nikki Nelson of Chewelah, Wash., both heading to New Mexico.
College coaches frequently cite the competitive and fundamental nature of Washington state high-school players as reasons for scouting this region closely.
Kevin Strozier coached in Michigan for years before taking over at Bellarmine Prep, then Lincoln, where he has been the girl's coach during Montgomery's entire year and more.
He says the girls in Washington have a different approach than in other parts of the country.
"Out here, the girls are a little more competitive," Strozier said. "Their attitude and approach to the game is different. They are more willing to put in the work."
That work ethic has produced a Class of 2007 that has everything. Bjorklund is widely considered the best shooter in the country. There's power galore from Rogers, the
6-foot-4 daughter of former University of Washington and NFL player Reggie Rogers. Her teammate at Chief Sealth in Seattle, Christina Nzekwe, is one of the new wave of 6-4
players who can run the floor, handle the ball and shoot from mid-range. Montgomery is one of the nation's most athletic, do-everything players. Morton and Courtney Vandersloot of Kentwood in Kent, Wash., are among the country's best ballhandlers and passers.
There's also depth. Stephanie Wilber, of Auburn Riverside in Auburn, Wash., is a 6-1 Arizona State signee who can stroke the three. Best also can stroke them, from as far away
as beyond the NBA arc. MacKenzie Argens, of Roosevelt High in Seattle, is a 6-3 shot-blocker extraordinaire. Katelan Redmon, of defending State 4A champion Lewis & Clark of
Spokane, Wash., is a 6-foot guard the University of Washington had to fight SEC schools for. And there's more.
Bjorklund and Morton, two of the biggest hoops junkies in the group, have played nationally for years, apart and together on the Spokane Stars. If most of the top Washington
kids had been assembled on one club team, they both say that team would have been as good as any in the country.
"We'd dominate," Morton said.
"I think we could've beaten anybody," said Bjorklund, who as a sophomore played for a Spokane Stars team that went 50-1 on the summer circuit. "Our state just has
unbelievable talent, especially this year. I would have loved it."
Notice Bjorklund said would have. Washington is one of the few girl's basketball hotbeds in the country that does not field a club team that is stocked from across the
state or region. Montgomery, Nzekwe and Rogers played briefly on the same team, but that was as close as the area came to a truly regionalized team. As such, college coaches
also peg Washington as one of the more difficult states to scout because so many of its top players are scattered across so many different club teams in the summer.
Fans of local players mostly have this high-school season to view this tremendous class because another thing Washington's 2007 elite have in common is their college-related
wanderlust. A vast majority - 22 of the 28 Division I signees - are headed out of state. Vandersloot signed with Gonzaga. Argens, Morton and Redmon are going to
Washington, which is located in Seattle.
According to a study for HoopGurlz by Tom Lyons, an AAU commissioner in Rhode Island, Washington should "export" about nine Division I prospects per year (see Where The Recruits Are). However, the state exceeded its "quota" by five during a year in which the talent was especially high.
Washington coach June Daugherty has been cricized by fans and alumni for not successfully recruiting more of the state's top players, particularly the top black players, in spite of having seven scholarships to offer for 2007. Some
have overlooked the high rankings and talent in Daugherty's 2007 signing class to rage about the fact that Montgomery, Nzekwe and Rogers all went elsewhere. Daugherty said
she was prevented by Washington's NCAA compliance office from being interviewed for this story, but later said on her weekly coach's radio show that the 2007 class could be
the best to ever come out of this state and that her staff works hard to recruit the top local players, citing Bjorklund as one example.
In Daugherty's defense, Montgomery said she was bent on playing out of state because she finds this area "boring." By all accounts, Nzekwe seemed inclined to play out of
state. That left Rogers, who was considered a near-lock for the Huskies until she decided late that she, too, preferred to play out of state and opted to join Nzekwe at UCLA.
Sealth coach Carmen Martinez prevented Nzekwe and Rogers from being interviewed for this story, citing her team's need for media education after the past tumultuous year
that saw the school get stripped of two State 3A titles because of a recruiting scandal that also provoked the ouster of Martinez's predecessor, Ray Willis. However, sources
close to Rogers confirmed that Washington was among the first programs to offer her a scholarship and was firmly in the recruiting mix for her until the end.
Walker said she had an extended, hopeful discussion with Daugherty this summer about ways to keep more of Washington's top players from leaving the state. Various coaches
in the Seattle and Tacoma areas complain that Washington has not had much of a presence in the local high-school and club-team scene since assistants Shimmy Gray and
Sunny Smallwood left for other programs during the past three years. Some also say Washington is unwilling to take chances on kids of color - whether that "chance" involves
financial, cultural or academic factors.
The kid who decides to stay and try developing some homegrown success will have to have a different outlook. There are some. Morton, who is a good enough student to have
been recruited by Stanford, opted for Washington for reasons not usually cited by recruits.
"I've traveled to a lot of places and visited a lot of campuses, from Tennessee to Ohio, Oregon, all over, and I just love my hometown," Morton said. "I love the weather, the
climate, the fact that you can see the mountains ..."
Wait a minute. The climate?
"I love the rain," Morton responded. "Staying in-state was just the best thing for me. Being close to my family, then factor in a good program and educational
institution, it was a slam dunk."
That slam dunk may have been a first for the state. It's a start.
Click Here for Team Washington 2007
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.