Evanston’s Alli Barker looks for an opening against a Sheridan player last week. Photo by Heather Gifford
EVANSTON — There are several instances throughout the course of an athletic season that can be considered “starting afresh” or “a new beginning,” and beginning the conference season is one of them. Going into post-season play, once the conference season is complete, is another that is often heard described as such.
To a lesser degree, finally getting the opportunity to play at home, coupled with the first games following the holiday break, could also be considered a form of beginning anew.
For seasoned Lady Red Devils head coach Scott Ehlers, wins and losses at this point in the season don’t really concern him if his team is demonstrating the effort expected by the coaching staff, the players are learning from their mistakes and setbacks, and if they’re getting better as the season progresses. The philosophy seems to center around wins coming and being more meaningful if they take place at the proper times. As long as the aforementioned goals of competing are being realized, wins will take care of themselves.
Most fans are familiar with sports expressions such as “peaking too soon” or “playing our best basketball at just the right time.” When reflecting on his team’s performance in the East versus West Tournament in Riverton last week, Ehlers told the Herald, “I was actually pretty happy with the weekend, quite honestly. In our first game against Laramie, we didn’t play particularly well, but after that we played pretty good. The coach expounded on that belief in the Lady Red Devils’ second game against top-ranked and undefeated Sheridan.
“We played the number one-ranked team in the state, and we were seven points down with a couple of minutes left. We ended up having to come out of our zone defense, which had been effective, and go into a man-to-man defense, and they’re faster than we are. Sheridan was able to bump the spread to 15 points or so when we had to do so, but we played competitively.”
The Lady Red Devils closed with a top-five ranked Thermopolis team, which played for the the 2A crown last season.
“The next day, we played Thermopolis, who played for the state championship last year, and have all those girls back,” Ehlers explained, “and we handled them pretty easily. So I’m pretty happy with where we are at. We’ve made some adjustments, and I think we’re on the upswing again. We were flat lining there for a while, but I’m pleased with our progress.”
Ehlers elaborated on one coaching strategy that paid dividends, designed to limit the productivity of the Lady Bobcats’ standout player, Dana Bjorhus, whom the coach described as a complete player, who shoots, passes and handles the basketball extremely well.
“We put Gizmo on her [Gizmo is MacKenzee Barker’s nickname] and instructed her to not let Bjorhus get away; don’t let her loose,” Ehlers continued. “Gizmo does a pretty good job when an assignment like that is issued to her — to stick to someone like glue, play heads-up and tough defense. She responds well to that type of challenge very well. She harassed her to the point where she got the Thermopolis girl out of her rhythm and, at that point, Bjorhus was in trouble. But they have some other good guards, so we still had work to do. Thermopolis is a good basketball team. I’m good with that win.”
The Lady Red Devils head coach was asked if he believed that 4A girls basketball was as good this season as it’s been, with seemingly a bunch of talented teams.
“Without question,” the coach responded. “Gillette, as usual is very good. In fact, they’re all good teams, every last one of them. And in our conference, Rock Springs is very talented, and of course there’s Natrona. Some of the other teams are not quite to that level, but it’s awfully tough. There are no gimmes on the schedule this year.”
The coach reiterated his belief concerning a team’s record in the early part of the season, with Evanston standing at 2-9.
“Wins and losses, particularly in the early part of the season, a lot of times are fool’s gold,” Ehlers shared. “We started out a little slow and have just had to get to work and correct the things we were not doing as we expected. That’s what we’ve been doing, and has been our focal point, and I believe we made some pretty good progress. We’re starting to play better basketball. I’ve never really associated a lot of value on a team’s wins and losses in the season’s beginning and even the middle, as long as the team is improving.”
The coach added more detail.
“It’s the wins you get at the right times that are important to me. I just want to be there, with a chance, in the end.”
When looking ahead to the weekend’s competition, the rematches with the second-ranked Lady Braves and Jackson, Ehlers remains positive. Against Star Valley in the first meeting in Afton on Dec. 28, two starters, Kensie Herold and Hailey O’Neill, both had three personal fouls in the first quarter or by the start of the second quarter, which made things difficult for the Lady Red Devils to carry out the game plan.
“I’m looking for better things this weekend,” the coach stated. “We can get Star Valley and we can sweep Jackson. I believe we can get anybody at any point in time, but we do have to keep the main core on the floor, or we could be in trouble.”
Ehlers agreed with the notion of Evanston having one of the best home court atmospheres in the state.
“It’s always fun to play at home,” he said. “It’s great to be able to be back home for a little bit, to sleep in your own beds and to play before an enthusiastic hometown crowd.”
It will be short-lived, for the Lady Red Devils, who tip things off with Star Valley at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and square off with the Lady Broncs on Saturday, with a 2:30 p.m. tap-time. The Red Devils will close out the month of January with all their games at home, but the Lady Red Devils cruise to Casper to face the Natrona County Fillies and Kelly Walsh Lady Trojans next weekend, Jan. 18 and 19. It is only when playing the Casper schools that the Evanston’s boys and girls swap. Most of the time, they play together, with both at home or both traveling. But at least the Lady Red Devils get a good taste of what it’s like and what to look forward to, with a boisterous, fun and supportive crowd to get them going this weekend.