Not since the 1920s had there been a state championship girls basketball team.
After winning the school’s first NIAA-sanctioned state title over Lowry in February, the Lady Wave is back for an encore performance and features a team that could be even more potent and dynamic. And of course, there’s a new kind of pressure for Fallon to repeat, which hasn’t happened since the 1920s when Fallon won three non-sanctioned titles.
“I think there’s pressure this year because everyone’s saying they didn’t lose anybody,” seventh-year Fallon coach Anne Smith said. “Surprisingly, Zoey (Swisher) left a huge hole that’s going to be hard to fill. Defensively, she was huge for us and just a leader. The girls feel a little more pressure this year. We have one goal and right now, that one goal is to put ourselves in the best position possible for the postseason. That’s all we’re focusing on.”
Fallon returns nine from last year’s state championship team, including four starters.
Seniors Caitlyn Welch (guard), Kaitlyn Hunter (guard, forward), Hannah Evans (center, forward), Hannah Hitchcock (forward) and Faith Cornmesser (center, forward) are back for their final year but Cornmesser isn’t cleared to play until Dec. 21 because of an injury. The Otuafi cousins headline the junior class of returners with Leilani (guard) and Leta (center, forward). Juniors Alexis Jarrett (guard) and Chandler McAlexander (forward) return while juniors Ali Lister (guard), Lorynn Fagg (junior) and Shelbi Schultz (forward) and freshman Madi Whitaker (guard) are new to the team.
“I’m very excited and looking forward to playing my last season under coach Smith,” Welch said. “We have a great bond with each other, which pushes us to achieve greatness. We are working to put ourselves in the best position possible for the postseason. We are taking the season one game at a time and hopefully, we will make it to the state tournament again.”
Losing Swisher was big both offensively and defensively. Filling those shoes this season, though, is still to be determined but Smith has a few ideas on who can run the offense. Both Welch and Lelani Otuafi will share point-guard duties to begin the season, which starts Thursday night against Douglas in the three-day local tournament.
“You bring some of those younger kids that moved up to the team, it’s a little intimidating coming from the JV to the varsity,” said Smith, who’s assisted by Kevin Lords and Keith Lund. Kevin Wickware is coaching the JV and Celeste Keller leads the freshman team.
Whitaker, as a freshman, has already shown poise to be the team’s point guard but Smith’s focus is to create a smooth transition. Fagg was the JV team’s point guard last year and Smith will look to ease them in this weekend with competition against the 4A schools.
“Madi handles the ball pretty well. We’ve been impressed how she runs the floor and handles the ball,” Smith said. “It’s tough to move from the JV to the varsity especially when you’re starting with all 4A schools because the level of play will be quicker.”
The supporting cast at guard centers around Hunter, Welch and Otuafi, as well. Fallon poses a threat from the outside and Hunter put in time over the offseason to perfect her 3-point shooting.
“She’s becoming a little bit more consistent from shooting from the outside. She can also play post,” Smith said.
The newcomers will be a welcomed addition to Fallon’s arsenal on offense with Fagg and Lister, too.
“We’ll look to them to be our outside shooters,” Smith said.
In the paint, Leta Otuafi is as dominant as they get, regardless of school classification. Otuafi commanded the key last year and has worked on ball handling and long-range shooting to become a more versatile threat.
“We have one of the best posts in Northern Nevada in Leta. She’s just powerful,” Smith said. “I don’t know if a lot of teams will have an answer to her.”
In addition to Otuafi, Cornmesser, McAlexander, Evans and Schultz will give Smith a well-rounded presence in the key on both sides of the floor. The first month of the season, though, will see more playing time from Evans and Schults with Cornmesser still in recovery.
“Missing Faith is going to be huge. She’s so dominant underneath,” Smith said. “That’s a tough spot to fill. Our outside might be a little bit stronger.”
And then there’s Fallon’s notorious full-court pressure and defense that powered the team through the regional and state tournaments last year. But now that the secret is out, Smith is anticipating the 3A to be more knowledgeable with Fallon’s scheme.
“We anticipate everyone’s going to know what press we run,” she said. “We’re working on a few defensive ideas. I would assume teams are going to prepare for that. We’re looking at different defensive sets that will create havoc as well. Our press last year, teams had a hard time breaking that 1-3-1. Faith was the point on that press. That’s a tough position. Faith did a great job. It might look a little bit different here in the beginning.”
The goals for the season are the same as last year: secure a first-round bye at the very least and reach the state tournament, which will be played in Reno this year. Lowry could be Fallon’s biggest challenge in league this year, again, but don’t rule out Fernley, Elko or Spring Creek. Fallon will dive into league immediately after this weekend’s tournament with the Elko County schools next week, making the tournament more important to identify and quickly fix any flaws that arise.
“I always ask them to put us against the tougher teams because we do want competition,” Smith said about the opening tournament. “This is an opportunity for the girls new to the team to get a taste of how much quicker and intense it is than JV. They get their feet wet right away. Obviously, at the beginning, your weaknesses will stand out. You have three games to figure out weakness before Spring Creek and Elko.”