LA CENTER — It would be easy when analyzing the La Center High School girls basketball team to just focus on the “Taylor Gang.’’ But, the Wildcats are so much more than that.
Junior post Taylor Mills and sophomore point guard Taylor Stephens are two of the top girls basketball players in southwest Washington and they have the credentials to justify that claim. However, there’s more than just those two reasons why the Wildcats are 13-0 and rated No. 6 in the Associated Press Class 1A girls state rankings.
“We are a dynamic duo, together we are the ‘Taylor Gang,’’’ said Taylor Stephens, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who leads all area girls with a scoring average of 19.4 a game. “But, our whole team contributes a ton.’’
Mills, an athletic and physically imposing 6-2 frontcourt player, is averaging 16.7 points per game this season. Like her friend and long-time teammate, Stephens, she knows La Center’s success has been built on a foundation of more than just two players.
“No matter the situation or the amount of playing time, we are all willing to work hard,’’ Mills said.
The first teammate that each Mills and Stephens pointed to as evidence to support their claim is junior Molly Edwards, a 5-6 guard and co-captain.
“Molly Edwards is our third leading scorer and she contributes way more than just that,’’ Mills said. “Her shooting and driving ability opens up other players, I’m very confident in how she plays. She is one of the hardest workers on defense I’ve played with and I’ve never seen her quit.’’
La Center High School’s girls basketball team is off to a 13-0 start and is ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press state Class 1A poll. The Wildcats, shown here during a recent victory over Trico League foe Castle Rock, have set their sights on the state tournament in Yakima this season. Video by Mike Schultz
Edwards is averaging 12.7 points per game this season, including a combined 41 points in back-to-back wins over Seton Catholic and Battle Ground last week.
“Molly Edwards has improved a lot this year,’’ Stephens said. “And, it shows a ton.’’
Junior Bethany Whitten, a 5-2 guard, is another of the Wildcats’ key performers according to Mills and Stephens. She’s the team’s other co-captain.
“Molly and Bethany Whitten are the reason other players get steals because of how hard they work to trap players,’’ Mills said. “Whitley Seter helps a lot with rebounds she’s super strong and solid on defense she also see open players. Everyone on this team has role and that’s why we work well.’’
Seter is a 5-9 junior post player, who Stephens calls “an amazing passer. And, she may not be super tall but she is super strong. And then you have Bethany (Whitten) who gets no attention and should get all of it. She works so hard and everyone else gets the credit.’’
Having two top players so willing to heap praise on their teammates is music to the ears of La Center coach Herm VanWeerdhuizen.
“It takes more than just two players to win a ball game,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said. “We’re a good seven or eight players deep.’’
All of the Wildcats’ rotation players were on last year’s team that won the Trico League title and district championship. However, for the second straight year, La Center failed to make the final step from the field of 16 playoff teams to the eight teams that qualified for the state tournament at the Yakima SunDome.
VanWeerdhuizen is hopeful the experience his players gained over the past two seasons will help them take that final step to the state tournament this season.
“There’s a lot of good teams out there,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said. “Everybody who is ranked ahead of us is there for a reason. I want to say we’re a little bit better but we still have a ways to go. Most of the players were on the team last season so hopefully they know it’s going to take more to get where we want to go. Hopefully they learned a little bit last year and will stay focused.’’
VanWeerdhuizen believes experience is a big key for the Wildcats this season. Last year, La Center was eliminated from the postseason by a senior-laden Nooksack Valley team.
“They showed our young ones what it takes to get the job done,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said of Nooksack Valley’s veteran players. “Hopefully we can stay focused and eliminate turnovers and play hard for 32 minutes. We’ve got to get better defensively. I think we will be alright offensively.’’
With two players combining to average over 36 points a game, it’s easy to understand why VanWeerdhuizen thinks the Wildcats’ ability to score the basketball will continue.
“Mills’ offense is getting better and her rebounding is always there,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said. “Stephens has been running the show and instead of settling for 3s, she’s driving more.’’
Mills and Stephens have played basketball together since they were in elementary school.
“They’ve been together since the third or fourth grade,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said of the two Taylors. “They know each other’s moves. They’ve got a good thing going between the two of them.’’
“Taylor and I have been playing together since Hotshots (youth basketball) so we just feel comfortable with each other on the court,’’ Mills said. “She makes me better and I make her better. We know pretty well how each other play. We both are very motivated to go far this year because of the bad taste in our mouth of how last season ended. Other than how great Taylor plays, she’s also a great leader. But, Taylor and I wouldn’t be playing as well as we do if it wasn’t for the help and extreme hard work of our teammates.’’
“Taylor and I have been playing since second and third grade together,’’ Stephens said. “I know how she plays and she knows how I play. You can tell how much we rely on each other. She, too, has put the work in and it’s showing. And, she makes me better and I make her better.’’
After getting their start playing youth basketball around Clark County as elementary school students, Mills and Stephens have now moved on to playing virtually all year around for their AAU team that travels all over the country.
“I feel like I’ve worked hard to improve my basketball IQ, by helping to get the best possible shot even if that means that I’m not making the shot but passing to a teammate to create a better shot,’’ Mills said. “Also, I feel like when I do take shots, I try to make a smart shot instead of forcing it. Lastly, I feel like I’ve improved as a teammate trying to step up in somewhat of a leadership role encouraging my teammates to keep at it and work hard and making how we play a team game.’’
Leadership has also been a focus for Stephens.
“I feel that I have improved on taking lead more,’’ Stephens said. “And being a leader and showing it in games as well. Last year, being the freshman, I had seniors and older people that led the team. So I didn’t do much. Now I’m looked to as a key player and part of the team. And it’s nice. I’ve put in a lot of work, outside of high school ball with my tournament team and traveling all over the country playing the best teams.’’
La Center has four of its final six remaining Trico League games this week, and three of them are on the road. But, it’s clear the Wildcats are ready to focus on the postseason the first chance they get.
“Our expectations are always high,’’ VanWeerdhuizen said. “We want to get to Yakima and once we get there, we’ll roll the balls out and see what happens.’’
Other key contributors for the Wildcats include 5-10 sophomore post Laynie Erickson and 5-3 junior guard Alyssa McKnight. Other players on the La Center roster include senior Lauryn Powers (5-7, post), sophomore Nya Mertz (5-2, guard) and freshmen Natasha Lewis (5-6, guard), Madison Rose (5-6, guard) and Mia Edwards (5-7, guard).
“Our goals are to make it to state and come home with some hardware,’’ Mills said. “We have a good team and a good chance this year, but and even better chance next year because we are the same team again. We don’t lose anyone. Ultimately, we want to improve as a team and play our basketball and give it everything we have.’’
“The key for us to reach that goal is to not take any game lightly,’’ Stephens said. “If we are up by 20 we need to push for 30, up 30 we push for 40. We want to be ready to play our game and as hard as we can for 32 minutes no matter what the competition is and be happy with the outcome. And, we have to continue to work together as well as we all do.’’