When a high school basketball team loses seven players — including three starters — to graduation, the following season will present some big challenges. One could probably call it a “rebuilding” year.
Just don’t use that word when talking to Steinbrenner girls coach J.R. Allen.
“That whole mindset, I don’t allow my kids to think like that,” Allen said. “To me, that’s kind of making an excuse to where you can have an average year.”
Allen’s team seems to have received the message because they aren’t having an average year: The Warriors are currently 20-3, and sit atop Class 7A-District 8 with a 6-1 record. The team began the season with a 12-game winning streak, and their three losses have been to teams with a combined record of 52-7.
Allen credits the team’s strong start to a suffocating defense: Just five teams have been able to reach the 40-point threshold against them. In fact, he said that the Warriors have kept almost every opponent to at least 20 points below their scoring average.
“That’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had, because this whole team has bought in, heart and soul, to what it really means to play team defense and shut people down,” Allen said.
Steinbrenner also is good at pulling out a victory in close contests: The team is 4-1 in games decided by six points or less. But that isn’t an accident, either. The team specifically practices late-game circumstances that put their players in pressure situations. Whether they’re down by one point with less than a minute left in the game, or they have a small lead to protect and no timeouts remaining — if they face that situation in a real game, odds are they’ve dealt with something similar in practice.
But when it comes to the one main factor in the team’s success, sophomore Courtney Hall agrees with her coach.
“I think definitely our strongest quality is our defense. We just can’t be stopped,” she said.
The team’s philosophy is to have everyone on the court provide pressure and make things difficult for the opposing offense.
Hall also played for Steinbrenner in her freshman year, though not as a starter. She acknowledges that the previous year’s team featured players who were on the court together for a long time and knew each other well, and the current team had to find their own chemistry. But they’ve done so with a stingy defense and a focus on not allowing the opponent to get second chances at scoring.
Hall is Steinbrenner’s leading rebounder, and said that a big team focus is on making sure there are no easy follow-ups when an opponent tries for points.
“If you’re going to take a shot, you’re only getting one shot, and all of us are crashing the boards,” she said.
While the team’s philosophy has earned them a strong record and the top spot in the district, it will be the district tournament and playoffs that will determine how far the Warriors go. And with more than a decade of coaching experience (including coaching boys earlier in his career), Allen has led teams with various skill levels and abilities.
But it’s this Steinbrenner team that has him confident in ways he hasn’t been in the past.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been able to say this in 12 years: This team could win a state championship,” Allen said. “Now will they? Obviously that depends on how we finish and me getting them to absolutely believe that unequivocally with no doubts, and we’re still working on it.
“But I truly believe this team could play for a state championship.”
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