Against the Odds by Brian Wolfe, Varsity Basketball Coach

A season with the Sacramento Waldorf
Varsity Girls Basketball team

Last summer, I received a message that Eric Wetterstrom had passed away after a long battle with ALS. Eric was husband to Veronica Wetterstrom and proud father of older daughter Presley and younger twin daughters Kendall and Delaney, who were set to follow in their older brother Landon’s footsteps and join the varsity basketball team as juniors in the fall.

Over the years, Eric became a fixture in Linden Hall as one of the most passionate and dedicated Waves basketball parents. His signature cheer, “GOOO WAVES!!!”, boomed through the gym before tip-off of every game.

I remember Eric and Landon coaching middle school basketball together at Live Oak Waldorf School while Landon played varsity high school basketball for coach Dean Stark. They were the most dedicated Waldorf basketball family.

I didn’t know Eric well, but I knew he was an incredible role model for his children. The summer was full of heartbreak, as their beloved grandmother also died, of cancer.

I couldn’t imagine how Kendall and Delany could face a new school year, let alone play basketball. When I look back on the season, I am moved to tears by the courage and determination of the Wetterstrom family.

A Tight Coaching Team

Our coaching staff has deep ties to Waldorf education; we go back more than a decade together. Jake Kelly is an SWS alumni (2006). I coached her during junior and senior years. She was a prolific scorer and highly motivated athlete who earned a scholarship to play NCAA division I basketball at the UOP. Jake has been my lead assistant for four years now and helped coach the 2016 section championship team.

Kelli Davis joined us in 2017. She played basketball at Sacramento State for one of my coaching mentors and also played against Jake in college!

Sherry Hirssig, Sacramento Waldorf Girls Basketball
Sherry Hirssig

Brianna Poulter joined us in 2015. She played four years of varsity basketball while attending SWS. Brianna assisted the varsity team in 2015 and became the girls JV coach the next year. I coached Brianna when she was a 7th grader at Cedar Springs Waldorf School in 2003.

Sherry Hirssig has been coaching with me the longest. We began coaching together in 2005. She was SWS JV coach for 12 years prior to my arrival. We’ve coached almost 300 high school games together – we have such a great synergy, we can read each other’s minds! We have joked over the years about being two Waldorf art teachers who also coach basketball.

In early October, the coaching staff met to discuss the season. We had heavy hearts for Kendall and Delaney. We also had a lot of planning to do.

With seven seniors graduated from last year’s team and only two returning varsity players, we had our work cut out for us.

We started from scratch, re-designing our offense and defense for younger, smaller, faster incoming players. Our theme for the upcoming season was, “Use speed, and out-hustle everyone!”

Feeling optimistic, we were excited for practice to start. We would be navigating a new team dynamic and taking a calculated risk by completely changing up our system. Little did we know, more adversity lurked around the corner!

Practice began the last week in October. Right away, there was a problem. There weren’t enough girls to field both a JV and a varsity team. We explored options and finally made the difficult decision to combine into one varsity team.

For the first time in our program’s 30-plus year history, we would not have a JV basketball team. Ultimately only three JV players joined the varsity team: Krishnaya Coleman-Salgado, a tough, intelligent sophomore guard with a great attitude; Mia Probst, a post player who plays with heart and has a knack for rebounding; and Rowyn Crowell, a freshman center whom I taught and coached at Davis Waldorf School. She brought a great work ethic and a solid post presence.

We had to re-teach everything from the first few days of practice with the varsity squad. By the end of week one, we were struggling to establish a team identity and roles.

Under the best of circumstances, the first two weeks of practice are a mad dash to prepare for the first pre-season game. That first Friday, I felt like we hadn’t really even started.

Talking with senior forward and team captain Sydne Long, we wondered if we could streamline everything for our new players. Sydne joined varsity at the end of freshman year and contributed to our magical section championship run that year. As a sophomore, she was thrust into a leadership role, where remains. Sydne is a hard-nosed player who draws the toughest defensive assignment, scores with aggressive drives, and never backs down from a challenge. I can’t think of a more inspiring teammate and leader than Sydne. As a senior, Sydne is a thoughtful, reliable leader, instrumental in helping younger players prepare.

A solid group of juniors rounded out the team, bringing with them two years of JV play. Natalie Mueller is a feisty guard who plays tenacious defense and has a great sense of humor. Alora Crago is a post player who is very coachable, a team player, and has an uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time.

Our other returning varsity player, Lindsey King, led the league in scoring as a sophomore point guard. Over the summer, Lindsey saved her money to enroll in an elite basketball camp called Point Guard College. She came into this season with a new set of skills and the best three-point shot in the league.

Despite being twin sisters, Kendall and Delaney are different people and different ball players. Kendall is a fiery guard who wears her heart on her sleeve and plays with great intensity, especially on defense. Delaney has focused determination and quickly settled into her role as a clutch shooter.

Together, the twins torment teams with their quickness on defense and ability to connect with each other on offense.

Our senior starting center, Lizzie Whitehead, is an athletic volleyball player who had not played basketball since middle school. We were happy when Sydne talked her into playing! Over the course of the season, Lizzie amazed everyone with a quick pace. She ended up becoming one of the best centers in our league.

(By the way, this year’s team had more rebounds than any other team in the school’s history. This was due, in large part, to Lizzie’s athleticism and tenacity for rebounding.)

Obstacles Of All Kinds

The second week of practice, Northern California fires raged out of control. As smoke and ash filled the air, the team was unable to practice due to poor air quality.

Thus, the Waves entered a tough pre-season, populated with large-school opponents, unprepared and behind schedule. After a tough loss to El Camino High School in the pre-season opener, the girls formed a tight battle at home against Pioneer High School, a big division III school from Woodland.

With three minutes to go and the score tied, Lindsey collided with a Pioneer player and ended up with a concussion that sidelined her for more than a week. It affected her for the entire season.

We lost the game 68-58. We felt good about our performance against a very good team but were worried about Lindsey. Just as we started to build team chemistry, we lost our point guard. “Adapt, improvise, and overcome” became the theme of the week as we scrambled to prepare for the next games minus our point guard. Week three, and we still had not one practice or game with everyone present and healthy.

After dropping a game to Western Sierra, the team rallied for our first win at home against Leroy Greene Academy. Lizzie and Alora did an exceptional job rebounding, and Delaney and Sydne combined for 40 points in a 53-49 win. With Lindsey, Kendall, and Delaney sitting out for health reasons, the team suffered a tough loss at Hamilton High School later in the week.

Five games into the season, the team had a record of 1-4 and was struggling with injuries heading into the Valley Christian Tournament. This tournament is always a gut-check moment for the team. We have competed in this tournament for as long as I can remember. The competition is stiff, and three games in three days against tough opponents exposes every gap and weakness.

Prior to the first game, we wrote on the whiteboard: “We win, or we learn.”

The coaching staff wanted to convey that the outcome didn’t matter. The ONLY thing we cared about was learning and improving.

Sacramento Waldorf High School Athletic ProgramWith everyone healthy and ready to go, the team did not disappoint. We played Valley Christian Academy in the first game. VCA was the defending section champ; they gained a senior who played for the Albanian Junior Olympic team and averaged 38 points per game.

Sydne guarded the Albanian superstar – the battle was on! It was a back-and-forth game between two teams with opposing styles. It became a battle of styles: VCA’s frantic defense and “run and gun” style against our controlled fast break and system of changing zone defenses.

In the second quarter, Krishnaya leapt off the bench with 10 points. Late in the game, Kendall hit a big three pointer to tie the score, but VCA edged out a 61-58 victory.

After the game, the coaches beamed. We had just given the defending champs a run for their money and proved to ourselves we could compete with the best opponents. The team felt good but lost to another powerhouse team the next day, entering the last day with an overall record of 1-6.

In need of a morale boost, the Waves gave every ounce of energy they had and beat Casa Roble in the final game, our best defensive showing of the season. Lindsey was on fire, finishing with a season high 38 points and 9 three pointers.

In the locker room, the coaching staff praised the girls for their mental toughness and for sticking to the “win or learn” mindset. We reminded the team that from there on out, “The only easy day was yesterday.”

Players, coaches, and parents bonded over a spaghetti dinner. The team was coming together. With newfound confidence, the Waves went on to win 10 straight games over the next five weeks!

After a lopsided win against Lodi Academy at home, the Waves traveled to Sacramento Adventist looking to avenge losses from previous seasons. A three pointer from Sydne with a few minutes to go put the game out of reach and sealed a satisfying win.

Another win on the road at John Adams Academy saw freshman Rowyn Crowell score her first points as a varsity basketball player. The Waves closed out the preseason with a tough game at Buckingham Charter High School in Vacaville. It was the first time our girls faced a team that matched our speed. We tried to press them early in the game and found ourselves trailing 19 – 20 after the first quarter.

Both teams made adjustments, and the Waves post players came through in a big way. Alora had her best game of the season with 7 points and 7 rebounds, and Lizzie and Mia pulled down big rebounds as well. After the game, the team celebrated their strong preseason finish over pizza, a highlight film, and a goal-setting meeting focused forward to league.

Building Momentum

Over the break, the team had time for much-needed practice. We also had the traditional alumni game the day after Christmas. The twins went on vacation, leaving our team shorthanded against a who’s-who of the best Waves players from the past.

Mia and Krishnaya played great defense, and Lindsey became a human highlight reel with 42 points, including 10 three pointers. But it wasn’t enough as the alumni won by two points.

After the game, alumni shared words of wisdom and encouragement with the girls and the team was filled with excitement for league play!

The Waves won the league opener on the road at Encina 78-24 with Sydne, Delaney, and Lindsey scoring in double figures. The second league game against Delta featured great defense, steals from Natalie Mueller and a balanced scoring effort. The Waves won 74-14.

On January 2nd, the Waves traveled to Foresthill and played a tough, well-coached Wildfires team. At halftime, we were down 25-27 and despite the close score, nothing went our way. Lindsey, Delaney, and Kendall sat on the bench with foul trouble; we struggled to contain their fast guards.

Lindsey picked up her fourth foul on the first possession of the second half and sat out the entire 3rd quarter. Heading into the fourth quarter, we were down by two.

The Wildfires extended their lead to 10 points with 4 minutes to go. Coming out of a timeout, Delaney hit a three pointer and after a steal from Kendall, Mia was fouled as she made a layup. In the final two minutes, Lindsey hit 7 free throws in a row, and Delaney sealed the game with another big three pointer with 20 seconds left. The Waves won 54-49 in a game that foreshadowed the type of perseverance the team would need in the weeks to come.

The Most Incredible Turnaround in our Program’s History

After beating the Futures 48-31, the Waves were set to play rival Victory Christian High School at home. A year earlier, Victory won on a last-second buzzer beater in Linden Hall; the girls were excited and nervous to play them again.

We were prepared for their tough man to man defense and had even brought back some plays from the Paul LaMere days to combat it. (Paul started the SWS girls basketball program in 1988 and coached until 2006).

After the first quarter, we were down by three but managed to take a four point lead into halftime. Midway through the fourth quarter, foul trouble became an issue, and Victory took the lead for the first time since the first quarter.

It was the Foresthill game all over again.

A layup from Kendall with 40 seconds left brought us to within one point. A rebound from Mia, followed by two free throws from Sydne, put us up by one point with 12 seconds to go.

We had been in the exact same position a year earlier, when their lefty point guard drove past us and laid the ball in at the buzzer for the win. Victory called timeout to set up their game-winning play.

We learned our lesson last year and knew not to be too aggressive in this situation. Our goal was to protect the basket and prevent easy shots. With four seconds to go, the same player who beat us the year before drove the lane and shot a floater in the middle of the key.

The ball bounced off the rim, and Lizzie secured the rebound as the buzzer rang. We won 50 – 49.

Lizzie pulled down 18 rebounds, including the final rebound at the end. Lindsey had 27 points and five assists, and our team defense was improving each game. After starting the season 1-6, the team was now 11-6, the most incredible turnaround in our program’s history.

We finished the first half of league play with two tough opponents. Woodland Christian started five experienced seniors and won 55-40 at their place, ending the Waves’ 10-game win streak.

Post-game, the coaches reminded our players of the “win or learn” mentality that carried us through a tough start.

In the next game, we faced Forest Lake. The Falcons were having an incredible season on the heels of star senior and sophomore transfers, new coaches, and the previous season’s league MVP. Despite a Waves lead of five points at half time, Forest Lake rallied to win 61-40.

After capping off the winning streak with stressful, close wins against Foresthill and Victory, and then losing two games in a row, the team was mentally and physically exhausted. Losing can amplify tension on a team; we realized we had some soul-searching and re-focusing to do.

“There is no substitute for hard work” was the thought for the week as we looked to get back on track. At that point, we were scoring more points than any other team in the league. We were also giving up more points than any other team.

We dedicated ourselves to improving our defense. The coaching staff strategized, devising new practice drills and a few defensive tricks.

Bringing It Home

Sacramento Waldorf School Varsity Girls Basketball team

After two blowout wins against Encina and Delta, we were set to play Foresthill. After the miracle comeback a few weeks earlier, we were glad to be playing the Wildfires at home.

Three pointers by Kendall and Lindsey set the tone in the opening minutes, but Foresthill had an answer for everything we threw at them. We went into halftime leading by one.

In the 3rd quarter, we made the decision to go with a post-player-oriented lineup and switch from our bread-and-butter 2-1-2 zone defense to a 3-2 zone defense. As we watched our lead grow, we noted that these adjustments could be handy in the future.

Mia came into the game as our extra post player and pulled down rebounds while playing solid defense. She was proving herself as a clutch fourth quarter player. The Waves won 50-32.

A tough loss to the Futures after such a satisfying win against Foresthill sent the coaching staff back to the drawing board. Emotions running high, the team had stay positive and prepare for Victory Christian.

To add more pressure, we would be playing the team that we beat by one point at their home gym on their homecoming night.

I chose not to tell the team that a win would guarantee us a spot in the playoffs – and a loss could put us in a play-in game situation with Foresthill to rally for a playoff spot.

Victory fans did not disappoint. The gym was packed, with a full band in the stands. It was nearly impossible to communicate during the game because of the volume in the building.

Our whiteboard read “The most aggressive team will win.” Three pointers by Delaney, Sydne, and Lindsey gave the Waves an early lead, but the Vikings battled back, tying the game at halftime. The Waves were down by four with two minutes to go and a gym full of opponent fans cheering.

After changing defense again, a free throw from Krishnaya and a Sydne layup got the lead back with under a minute to go. The Waves won 43-39.

Coaches and players were elated, celebrating in the locker room when the team learned they secured a playoff spot.

The final two games against Woodland Christian and Forest Lake went exactly the way the first two match-ups went. While effort and intensity were solid, things didn’t go our way. We lost both games.

As the regular season ended, the Waves had a record of 15-11. We’d been through a rollercoaster of a season.

The girls knew they had achieved the impossible. They had turned a seemingly hopeless 1-6 record into an incredible 10-game winning streak. Every time they faced adversity and loss, they bounced back with renewed determination and strategy.

The team stood on the brink of defeat multiple times and found a way to stick together and win (or learn). With the challenge of playoffs looming, coaches and players vowed to make the most of every second left in the season.

The Waves were the #6 seed in the CIF Section playoffs, set to face off against the #3 seed, Vacaville Christian High School.

Vacaville was a powerhouse program coming off a league championship with sights set on a section championship. We knew they were starting three girls taller than six feet and, based on our scouting, we had a pretty good idea of their game plan.

Their gym was packed, and they started out strong, hitting three three pointers against our zone. Up by one after the first quarter, we made the same defensive adjustment to the 3-2 zone that proved successful during the second half of league.

Vacaville struggled to find open three pointers in the second quarter. With the Waves down by three, 30 seconds to go in the first half, Delaney hit a long three-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game.

Seconds later, Lindsey stole the ball from the Vacaville point guard and passed to Sydne, who hit a buzzer-beating jumper from the free throw line to give us a two-point lead at halftime.

In the locker room, I reminded the girls that the pressure was on the higher ranked home team and if we kept up our intensity, they would get flustered.

By the end of the third quarter we were up by four with a long eight minutes to go in the game. Clinging to a two-point lead with one minute to go, Delaney made a layup off an inbounds play, and Mia got a rebound to give the Waves possession of the ball with 45 seconds to go.

During a timeout, our mantra became “the clock is our friend!” It was important to maintain possession of the ball and not rush a shot. We didn’t want to give Vacaville another chance to score.

After passing the ball around and trying to run down the clock, we forced a shot as the shot clock was set to expire. The shot missed and a chaotic scrap for the rebound ensued.

With perfect volleyball form, Lizzie was able to bat the ball out of the air to Lindsey who was wide open at the top of the key. Lindsey shot the ball and drained a three pointer that cemented a huge upset playoff win.

The final score: 37-30. Just a week before, the team had lost the last two regular season games, and we all wondered if we had another comeback in us.

Teams that start out 1-6 don’t typically make the playoffs, let alone upset the #3 seed on the road. We had beaten the odds.

Sometimes the sweetest wins are the ones you’re not supposed to get. I left the gym that night with tears of pride and appreciation for my team!

As fate would have it, we would go on to face the #1 seed, Valley Christian (again!), a few days later in the section final four.

Since playing VCA in their preseason tournament, they dominated all of their opponents and cruised to a league championship. Of all the teams in division six, we had given them their most competitive game, and we were ready for the rematch.

The Junior Olympic star from Albania led the section in scoring with Lindsey and Sydne coming in at number two and three. VCA jumped out to an early lead but a Delaney three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Waves a one-point lead heading into the second quarter.

With Lizzie in foul trouble, Alora blocked shots and played great defense at the center position in the second quarter. Solid free throw shooting from Sydne and Lizzie kept the Waves close in the second quarter, but a scoring run from Valley gave them a 13-point lead going into halftime.

To start the second half, Mia made a big shot inside, and Lindsey scored eight straight points to bring the Waves within striking distance. Valley responded by going on a scoring run of their own and igniting their home crowd.

With momentum and the home court advantage on their side, VCA pulled out the win.

After the game, the team gathered in the same room where we had met two months prior with a record of 1-6. Back then, the idea of making the playoffs seemed nearly impossible.

Early in the preseason, we had been in survival mode and all we could do was focus on learning, improving, and taking everything one day at a time.

Hard work, heart, and determination brought the team to this moment. We made it farther than we ever thought possible.

There were tears after the game – tears of joy, satisfaction, and exhaustion.

I wanted them to know that, while it would feel great to continue winning games, we had already received the life lessons this season had to offer.

We learned we are all capable of pushing ourselves and achieving much more than we think is possible.

We learned the importance of never giving up.

We learned to value each other and the important role each person plays.

We stayed true to our saying, “We win or we learn,” and we did a lot of both! As a coach, I felt satisfaction that we had done our best and learned the lessons we all needed to learn. As a teacher and a coach, what more can you ask for?

As another season draws to a close, the wins and losses, stats, and emotions fade into memories. The things that stick with me the most are the people and the themes.

As a high school coach, my primary job is to teach. Good teachers learn just as much, if not more, from their students. The ultimate learning experience comes when we face life and adversity together as a team.

The story of the 2018-2019 SWS Varsity Girls Basketball team is everything a coach could hope for in a season. We win or we learn!

Brian Wolfe is SWS varsity basketball coach.

One thought on “Against the Odds by Brian Wolfe, Varsity Basketball Coach

  1. What a great recap. None of this could have accomplished without you Brian. I am so grateful that Sydne had you as a coach these last 3 years. You truly teach the game of life and basketball.

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