LORENA — Seniors aren’t guaranteed to get you 20 points a night.
Seniors are not necessarily your team’s best players, and they may not naturally gravitate to the leadership roles that often, by default, fall to the team’s veterans. No, what a senior mostly brings to a roster is familiarity. It’s a comfort level. They’ve been around, they understand the standard, and in turn a coach knows what to expect from them.
So, then, what happens when you have a team completely devoid of seniors? Not a one in sight.
Well, in the case of Lorena girls basketball coach Rodney Gee, let’s just say that he wasn’t making any bold predictions back in October.
“I’ve said this before — we’ve always had good seniors,” said Gee, who graduated six players from last year’s 20-win team. “It may be one or two, a smaller class, but we’ve always had some. So without a senior, it was definitely a different year, a completely different year for us.
“So, honestly, we didn’t know. I knew we had a bunch of really good kids that worked really hard and would put in some time to make themselves a better, skilled player. But I don’t think you really know until you put them all together, put them all on the court and go.”
Because of the experience exodus, outside projections for Lorena were subdued. Some publications predicted the Lady Leopards to finish fifth in the six-team District 18-4A, which would have put them outside of the playoffs.
“Honestly, we were expected to not do good,” sophomore Ashlyn Wachtendorf said. “We were expected to be the bad team of the district, I guess.”
Still, Gee was cautiously optimistic. He’d witnessed the development of his players, and had taken stock of their work ethic. He figured they’d get better throughout the year.
But team chemistry? Any idea of where the squad might stand in terms of its win-loss record? All of that was a guessing game.
And guess what? These plucky Lady Leopards have grown up in a hurry.
Lorena not only exceeded last year’s win total – the Lady Leopards feature a 25-7 record entering Monday’s bi-district playoff game against Ferris – but they also proved to be the class of the district. Lorena won nine of its 10 games in the always-percolating 18-4A stew, capturing its first district title since the 2011-12 season.
So, what happened? How did Gee’s girls mature at such a rapid rate?
“Well, I think the answer is a lot of things,” Gee said. “I think who we try to be all the time is a team that’s going to outwork everybody we play. Not that everybody else doesn’t work hard, but we’re going to really try to outwork everybody. Team is such a big deal to us, and a kid sharing the basketball and understanding that it’s about us as a team. It’s team first, and we don’t care who gets the credit, as long as we get the credit, that kind of mentality. And I think that’s been a big deal.”
So they get after it. They’re unselfish. Several have sharpened their shooting range.
But they also love each other. Gee acknowledged that team chemistry is something you can’t predict from year to year, that it tends to play out organically. To its own credit, Lorena has forged a fun-loving sisterhood.
“I’ve seen it on and off the court, even in the locker room,” said junior Sara Robertson. “On the court, we’ll be high-fiving even if it’s just switching rotations or something. Or, (we’ll say), ‘Hey, it’s OK if you messed up, we’ll get it the next time.’ We have team dinners once a week, pretty much. We talk and play games and have fun, and the bus rides, we just talk and prepare for the games.”
The coaching staff joins the players at those team dinners, “though they don’t stay as long,” Robertson said with a laugh.
Golly Gee whiz, he’s loud
If you’ve ever attended a Lorena game, you probably remember Gee most of all. He coaches with the volume cranked to 11, shrieking instructions and incredulity in equal measure. He’s animated and undoubtedly passionate, but there’s little question to the Lorena players about where their head coach’s heart lies.
“He’s lower key (away from the games),” Wachtendorf said. “I mean, of course he’s passionate, but he’s just goofy. He jokes around with us, he’s nice to us, he talks about our social lives and our other sports that we play. He’s just really connected with us.”
Gee is grateful the players are getting that message. He said that he has a hard time dialing down the intensity, but it’s all born of a desire to see the girls succeed in everything they do.
“I don’t think kids or anyone would let you coach them hard if they believe you don’t care. … There’s nothing personal,” Gee said. “I would say this – the things that come out of my mouth most of the time are positive, and I don’t know if that gets seen everywhere.
“Because I am a man that’s very passionate, and sometimes I’m watching film and I’m thinking, ‘Just sit down and be quiet.’ I wish everybody didn’t know every feeling that I had. I wish I didn’t show that. That’s my personality. … But that’s why I’m here. I’m here for these kids, and trying to make them understand and trying to help them along the way.”
Gee doesn’t know how the next two to three weeks will play out. The do-or-die nature of the postseason separates the wheat from the chaff, and that winnowing process is a challenge even for the best of teams.
But, even without a senior, he knows this much: He knows his team will dive for loose balls. He knows that they comprehend what represents a good shot, and that they’ll stick their noses into the fray and try to rebound. It doesn’t even matter when they’re the saplings among the redwoods.
“Those things give you a chance to win – playing defense, rebounding, and taking the shots that you want and not what the other people want you to shoot, they’re going to give you a chance to win,” Gee said. “I do like our chances.”