Whittell girls executing remarkable turnaround in 1st year under coach Bryant
ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. — An official working the Whittell Invitational basketball tournament a couple weeks ago leaned over during a break and told school principal Crespin Esquivel that he must be a genius.
Esquivel looked at him curiously before the referee responded, “You got Phil (Bryant) to coach the girls and boys.”
Esquivel smiled and didn’t take any credit, but likes what he sees from the Lady Warriors.
There’s a lot to like. The girls are playing quality ball and excitement, and expectations, grow with every victory.
The Warriors are set to eclipse anything a Whittell girls’ basketball team has done over the past decade — and they are just 11 games into the season.
The Warriors are 7-4 and have won four straight games for the first time since 2006.
The success all starts with Bryant, who made the decision together with his wife Jan, to take on the girls’ program while also coaching the boys. The longtime coach has guided the boys to a pair of state championships in his six seasons at Whittell.
Bryant, also the school’s athletic director, looked for a new girls’ coach but didn’t receive any qualified applicants with serious coaching experience.
“My wife has encouraged me for the past three years to coach the girls so they could learn what the game is really all about,” Bryant said. “We tried to get applicants and when I told Jan that I couldn’t find a qualified coach she just said, ‘You do it. You are at the school all day anyway.’”
Bryant has experience leading both programs at once from his 39 years coaching at Westwood High School in Northern California, where they gave him the ultimate tribute by naming the court in his honor.
When he led both programs at the same time in 2011-12, the girls went 49-7 over two seasons and the boys were 50-8. Both teams won section titles in 2012.
Back then every day included six hours of practice, but he has since streamlined his schedule to be more efficient.
“I took it on (the program) here because I thought I could help the girls with skill development, team play and improve the competitive elements,” Bryant said. “Most of the girls also play soccer and the games are similar. Both require ball movement, spacing, full field/court defense and a lot of hustle.”
The first few practices were interesting to say the least. Bryant said the girls looked at him like he speaking a foreign language.
“It took us a few practices to learn that we had to do what he said,” said senior and four-year varsity player Madison Burch. “We’re like ‘What? We have to listen to you?’ In past years, we kind of did what we wanted. Phil is very strict or you’re not playing. But everyone responds well because we all have respect for him.”
“The first week of practice was a disaster for all of us,” Bryant said. “Shots were going up from all angles and all directions. Defense did not exist and passes were guesses. Several of the girls were not familiar with standard basketball terminology. But the girls have been great from that shaky start.”
Bryant has relied on Burch and fellow four-year varsity player Brianna Johns to be team leaders and they have responded.
They are the team’s leading scorers, each averaging in double figures during the four game win streak.
Last Friday, Dec. 14, Burch scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds and Johns added 17 points in a 61-27 victory over Sierra Sage Academy to head into winter break with their fourth straight victory.
“Honestly, this year has already been so amazing,” Johns said. ”We have learned so much from Coach Phil, and we’re just getting started. It’s a huge change and being a senior, it’s a great way to end my year.”
Along with experience from Burch and Johns, Bryant also knew he had athleticism and speed on the team including Kyla Rippett, the 1A 100-meter state champion, and Anna White, the 1A 200 and 400 state champ, who was also the school’s best soccer player for a team that went undefeated in the regular season.
The squad also features senior Shaylie Rippett, the school’s most athletic volleyball player and sophomore Ava Campbell, a speedster on her way to possibly becoming the school’s best athlete.
“Anna and Shaylie were playing purely on quickness but had not developed some of the fundamental skills,” Bryant said. “Anna, Kyla and Ava are all very quick and I felt we could build on that. Sophomores Olivia Craig and Grace Wolski are young and inexperienced but willing to learn and have progressed nicely.”
Bryant is also high on freshman guard Jessica Johnson who dominated the Kahle league as a middle schooler but is still scratching her potential at the high school level.
He likes the shooting touch of junior Trinity Kirvada-McGowan and is excited for the return of sophomore Andrea Smith after winter break.
“Not having a junior varsity team hurts in some ways but on the positive side, they are all getting experience at the highest level possible in our division and winning,” Bryant said.
There are growing pains and coach still gets frustrated during games and takes a seat on the bench, that’s when he’s really irritated. But a few moments later he’ll be back up barking directions.
“Coach has always been on his players, he gets on me and the whole team,” Johns said. “But he wants it for us and we want it too. He’s pushing us to the limit to be the best we can be.”
Bryant is running the same system he uses for the boys, but he’s still waiting to see a better shooting touch and would love to see a few more girls come in early to work on individual skills because he thinks this team can qualify and do some damage in postseason.
“As a team we shoot poorly and take a number of ill-advised shots and I want both of these teams to make the playoffs (The boys are 9-0) and it looks like we will have an opportunity to do that,” Bryant said. “They are beginning to believe in themselves and can see that the opportunity is there.”
Over the last 11 seasons, the Lady Warriors have won just 66 games, or an average of just over six per year. The most wins during that stretch was 11 in 2008-09, the last time they reached the playoffs.
They have already seven wins in 11 games and have 13 more contests left on the schedule. The last time they won five straight games was in 2006-07 where their streak reached seven.
“My hopes are high,” Burch said. “For the first time in my four years we are positive and it’s really fun. Everyone is going out there and having fun because we know what to do. Everyone on this team has a place and we are definitely starting to believe.”