All week in practice Kelly Walsh head coach Sara Tuomi stressed to her team that every possession on Friday night mattered. Out-rebounded on average and up against Class 4A’s best shooting team, the Trojans had to find their way through 4A’s third-best defense.
That’s why Tuomi shouted every defensive rotation, micro-managing 4A’s best defense. The Trojans were allowing just 34.6 points per game before returning to their home gym on Friday. Defense has been the Trojans’ identity — a spark to their offense. When the offense committed turnovers instead of converting stops the defense faltered. The rest was history.
Tasked with winning a battle of full-court presses without senior Kylie Spangler, the Trojans lacked the necessary composure early to endure Star Valley’s pressure and shooting streaks to ultimately fall 47-35 at home. Spangler, the Trojans’ starting point guard, was not in uniform on the bench as her lingering knee injury kept her out of a second week of action. Tuomi hopes to have her back by next weekend’s games, although the senior may not be at 100 percent.
“Not having her out there being our main ball handler, that’s a big difference,” Tuomi said. “It takes a lot of stress off (Sarah) Strube and Dani (Schell) and all those guys to get into their role. Not having Kylie out there is huge for us.
“Playing a team like that, that can get up and pressure us, it showed. We were able to get around Green River and Evanston without her last week. This was, obviously, a better team than what we saw a week ago.”
In lieu of their standard starting line-up, the Trojans (11-4, 4-0 4A Northwest) altered their approach with senior Hadley Lloyd playing alongside junior Corin Carruth on the block. This allowed Schell, Isabel Lyons and Strube to pressure in the full court and on the perimeter. Defensively they didn’t miss a beat. Swarming intensity on defense has become ingrained through over 2 months of practice. The offense, however, struggled.
Turnover after turnover added urgency to each defensive possession, hence Tuomi shouting a different shift with each pass. The Trojans limited Star Valley’s offense to just 1-of-11 from the field to start but only led by four points after one quarter. Once the Braves 14-3 (3-0 4A Southwest) scored three consecutive layups off turnovers, forcing Tuomi to call a timeout without their calming presence at point, the momentum had permanently shifted.
Kelly Walsh sophomore Barrett Lloyd started shaky against the pressure before matching the intensity. She settled into her featured role off the bench for the Trojans, helping keep the home side close as Star Valley’s offense started firing.
“She grew up in Evanston and Green River last week,” Tuomi said of the younger Lloyd. “She got a lot of minutes having Kylie out. We threw her into the fire and she did very well and you got to see it again here.”
A 3 at the halftime buzzer from Millie Merritt sent the Braves into the break with a 16-13 lead. That lead grew to double digits in the third quarter as the Braves found success slashing and going opposite court against the Trojans’ defense. The Braves went on a stretch of converting 7-of-12 from the field as the Trojans found themselves in danger of falling away. Senior Caitland Erickson scored 10 of her team-high 13 in the second half.
Then came the resolve of last year’s regular-season champions.
Schell, who was honored as Wyoming Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year at halftime, hit a deep 3 just before the third-quarter buzzer to cut the lead to seven. She finished with a game-high 17. Then came consecutive turnovers and conversions that cut the lead to one possession. That three-point margin was as close as the Trojans would get.
Kelly Walsh’s marginal seven-point deficit ballooned to 14 in the final 2 minutes. The Braves held onto the ball and stayed disciplined on defense up until the final whistle.
While not a quadrant game, it was a rematch of the season opener for both teams. That went much of the same way, with the Trojans leading early only for the Braves to pull away. It also may not be the last time the West’s top two teams clash with regionals a matter of weeks away.
“Oh, we talked about it and we’ll see them again,” Tuomi said. “We know that they’re within our path. We’ll be ready.”