Every year, early-season basketball results reveal surprises and breakout players few outside their respective teams saw coming. A sixth man turns starter and flashes in her senior season, or a transfer suddenly finds extra play time and and dazzles with the extra minutes.
More and more frequently, these players are underclassmen. Year-round training and hundreds of games against strong competition in AAU or summer programs allow players to hone their skills at earlier ages and get a sense of the game that allows a coach to trust a freshman in key moments. As a reward, they often see a massive growth in development for their sophomore season.
Several area teams have seen the benefits of these youngsters this season. From Clatskanie to Woodland, underclassmen are making a big impact on local hoops, and will be sticking around for the foreseeable future.
Here are a few of the standouts.
The darty defender
Kelso sophomore Alexis Kleven prides herself on the ability to get in her opponent’s head, pesky defense and quick offensive movements providing her the physical prowess to do so. Still learning how to lead, the sophomore’s work ethic is fueled by something she can’t control — her height.
“Being smaller, I kind of had to set multiple expectations up for myself,” said Kleven, who stands a shade under 5-3. “I always want to be a threat on offense and defense.”
After a freshman season that put Kleven on the map, the expectation was for Kleven to lead the Lassies into the future. She’s doubled her scoring output (from 7 to 14 points per game) and taken over the reins of the squad.
“She’s not very reactionary so if something bad happens, I don’t have to calm her down,” coach Jennifer Hamilton said. “For her to be so calm and collected so early, it’s nice because she’s only going to get better as a junior and senior”
The potent post
Woodland sophomore Nicole Guthrie, too, doubled her scoring total. She averaged just under 6 points per game last season. Now, she’s second on the team in scoring, averaging just a shade under 12 per game while being the Beavers’ top rebounder.
It just took awhile for Guthrie to adjust to the game.
“There’s a different level of competition from eighth grade,” Guthrie said.
But Guthrie doesn’t put too much stock into some of her huge nights, including a 26-point evening in a win over Castle Rock.
“Each night I go out and do whatever I need to do,” she said. “
The savvy sophomore
Three Rivers Christian sophomore Ryan Ransom isn’t like many sophomores.
“I’ve been playing varsity since the eighth grade, so this is really my third year,” Ransom said.
A Kelso native, Ransom played against elite talent that’s excelled with the Hilanders, such as Riley Noah and Shaw Anderson, before joining his high school team.
The result is another record-breaking year. He tallied a school-record 42 points in a win over Washington State School for the Deaf. It broke a record he set last year, when he scored 33 in a win over Firm Foundation.
He’s averaging a team-high 18 points per game despite being just 5-foot-11 and often one of the smaller players on the court.
And as his coach Dave Tuengel noted after the 42-point affair, he does most of his damage in the lane.
His go-to move draws the defender upward with a spin fake that mimics a turnaround jumper, and when the big begins to salivate at the low-hanging fruit, Ransom reverses and lays it in from the inside.
“They think they’re going to get a swat,” Ransom said.
Nope. They just get scored on.
The super scorer
Clatskanie’s Shelby Blodgett wasted no time with proving she’s no typical freshman. She dropped 33 points in her first varsity game.
The output not only shocked basketball fans throughout the area, it surprised her a bit too.
“It’s crazy to see me playing against middle schoolers last year and now I’m playing against high schoolers,” Blodgett said. “It’s a big gap.”
The adjustment hasn’t slowed her down much. She’s averaging an area-leading 26 points per game and has scored 30 or more in five games this season.
She’s also averaging double-digit rebounds and sits at the center of the Tigers’ offense garnering most of the attention of teammates.
“I want to get double teamed more so that my teammates can be open,” Blodgett said.
She’s certainly going to get her wish if she keeps this pace up.
The age-defying athlete
Not to be overshadowed, fellow Clatskanie frosh Olivia Sprague has dazzled just as much as Blodgett.
Mature beyond her years on the court, Sprague’s ballhandling, athleticism and court vision have the Tigers’ engine humming.
Sprague is averaging 19 points per game this season, and set a school record with 37 points, including a record eight 3-pointers, in a win over Riverdale.
“It definitely was quite a surprise to go out and show that much,” Sprague said. “It’s really great being able to experience that.”
But as is required from a guard, Sprague deflects the attention and focuses on the team.
“My favorite has to be the ones where we’re all incorporated in games,” Sprague said. “Where some girls can get points, rebounds and assists.”
It’s those game where she’s in rhythm, with a beat that disguised her gaudy numbers from even her. Until Sprague’s grandfather tallied his personal statbook and showed her.
“There’s been quite a few games like that,” Sprague said. “I felt like the whole team was setting up easy shots and I didn’t realize it.”