How do you get a basketball team to lessen its appetite for the one thing it wants to do most — put on a show — while having the talent and experience to do exactly that?
Feed it something else.
And let those results be the show.
Built around a senior trio of three-year starters, West Valley’s boys came into the season with a depth behind their potent leaders, an athletic ability to score in waves and were bringing their hefty experience from the Class 3A ranks down to 2A.
And the CWAC braced for the arrival of the Rams, who have lived up to the expectations with a 10-0 conference record and No. 5 state ranking. But it’s how they’ve done it that’s both surprising and impressive.
Defense. Not just make-the-coach-happy defense, but serious business.
“When we learned at the start of the season that defense was going to be our focus, we said, ‘Well, OK, let’s bring it,’” said senior Jalen Peake. “We were more offensive oriented last year, definitely, but we always knew we were capable defenders. We just needed to focus on it.”
Focus they have and without pause.
West Valley’s defensive scoring average in CWAC play has dipped to 39.9 with only three opponents able to top 40 points. Ellensburg did the best in a 58-51 home loss but shot 34.7 percent in the effort. Last season, albeit in a 3A league, West Valley didn’t hold a single opponent under 40 points.
“In the past, we’d have stretches when we wouldn’t be sharp and kind of lazy on defense. Sometimes we relied on our offense too much,” noted senior point guard Tyler Cluff. “Now we focus on executing the defense all the time — every possession.”
In a league known for its up-tempo play, especially in super-energized gyms like Wapato and Grandview, West Valley coach Jon Kinloch could have invited the pace and turned his horses loose, figuring if a team scores 60 on his Rams they’ll simply score 70. And he wouldn’t have been wrong in that thinking.
But he strongly believed in the value of a re-emphasis and had just the man — assistant coach Tyson Whitfield — to implement the plan. Whitfield, the former Lafayette College standout and Eisenhower grad, had coached many of the players on a junior high team and was tasked with getting them to believe in a defense-first mindset.
“I can bark as much as I want, but if they don’t buy into focusing on every possession for the full 35-second clock, it doesn’t work,” Whitfield said. “These kids are putting in that effort and they see the results. We came into the CWAC blind and with a healthy fear. People asked how we would keep up with the speed in the league. Well I like our speed fine, but we’re not getting into trading baskets — that’s not what we’re trying to do.”
With their variety of zones, presses, traps and man defense, which employ a lot of switching and require constant communication, the Rams own an 11-1 record — the lone loss to Lake City, Idaho — while holding opponents to 33-percent shooting from the field and 23 percent from 3-point distance.
“As much as I love what we are capable of offensively, we hang our hat on stops and rebounds,” Kinloch said. “Our theory is that we can win games with an outstanding defensive effort even if our offense is average on a given night. When you’re dependent on making shots to win a game you come up short some nights.”
That’s a bedrock philosophy of coaching because it’s true — the most reliable result always comes from the defense, all effort being equal. But it all hinges on being embraced by teenagers, who love to put up shots, incite the crowd and watch their scoring averages climb. In other words, you have to fight the urge.
To that end, Kinloch has created game-by-game goals — nearly all defensive — that have not only kept his team focused on the team’s priorities but have created a competitive and spirited enthusiasm for the gritty and less glamorous end of the court. Most notably, the Rams aim to hold teams to single digits in each quarter and 40 points for the game.
“Instead of just saying to get more stops as a general goal, it helps kids to quantify it,” Whitfield noted. “We want kids to be offended when a team scores on them. Having specific goals helps because it enforces functioning together as one solid unit.”
To sustain such an intense effort, Kinloch taps into his considerable depth as often as he can. In last week’s wins over Selah and Othello, the scoring core of Peake, Cluff and Austin Strock averaged just 17 minutes apiece. It cost them minutes, but the goals were nailed with defensive games of 35 and 34 points.
“I remember going into the Wapato game (a 48-38 win) thinking, wow, with their shooters and fast break, 40 points is a huge challenge,” said Peake, who carries the team’s top scoring average at 16.2 and who Whitfield calls the defensive player he’s seen in the league. “But we did a good job containing them and it showed what our hard work on defense could do. The goals are a big part of that — they keep us motivated to play hard every possession.”
As West Valley begins the second half of conference play and everyone has had a good look at the newcomers, the Rams know the challenge will be more difficult to keep their streak going. But Kinloch’s crew also knows it’s still improving on defense and that’s where any future success lies.
“Some nights we have to scratch it out on the offensive end, but with our goals for how hard we work on defense — that’s going to get us far,” Cluff said. “We want to be a defensive-minded team. Getting stops is what makes a real good team.”
Shots may make the show, but stops are keeping these Rams hungry.