It’s not quite the story for another Hoosiers movie. But it’s a basketball story worth repeating, as the Salt River HS girls basketball team finished it’s long journey this year by capturing the 1A state championship.
The Eagles beat Gila Bend HS, 66-51, even though Ashley Wirtzberger scored 28 points. Wirtzberger, Gila Bend’s senior guard who broke the national record earlier this season for three-point scoring, had 36 points in the semi-final game. So 28 wasn’t so bad.
And the long road has been bumpy for the Eagles. Not by happenstance, but because the coach wanted it that way.
The Eagles learned early as their first loss came against Valley Christian HS in Chandler, a team ranked No. 1 in 2A and unbeaten. They lost that game by 22 points, but it taught them a lot about themselves. They only had three more losses all season – and they played some of the best, right up to Class 5A.
Their coach, Shawn Lytle, put the team in the Phoenix Country Day Desert Classic tournament over the holidays and they played all comers, including teams from 2A and 3A. They also beat a couple of 5A schools, Mesa HS in 5A-I and Mesa Westwood HS in 5A-II.
The Mesa schools have enrollments in the thousands and draw from a huge pool of talent. Salt River High School has fewer than 200 students.
Teams from the larger, more affluent schools use Club ball in the off-season to help build their programs. But many of the players from the reservation don’t have that advantage; Club ball can be expensive because of the fees and travel costs .
‘Almost none’ of the girls on the Salt River squad played Club ball, said Lytle. They use a three-guard attack and count on a style known generally as “rez ball” to level the playing field. In rez ball, the girls contest every shot, scrap for every loose ball, grab at any ball that is dropped to the waist level of the opponent, and get back on defense. And they try to run the opponent into the ground, using great conditioning to carry them through the final minutes of each game.
The girls on reservation teams have played with, and against, each other since they were big enough to dribble a ball. So they know each other’s moves almost before they’re executed.
They say that when you’re born on the reservation, you’re born to be a basketball player. Parents want their children to grow up to be basketball stars, playing before good-sized crowds each night since games between reservation teams always draw well.
This year, Salt River wasn’t ranked at the top of the small-school teams. The Eagles lost to Gilbert Christian HS (formerly Surrey Garden Christian) in last year’s semi-finals and weren’t expected to be able to get that far a second straight year.
But a couple of newcomers entered the picture, as Mikki Ramirez stepped into the starting line-up at shooting guard and Britney Hanna took a starting position in the post. Ramirez, a junior who transferred in from Shadow Mountain HS in Phoenix, was contributing 22 points a night.
Ramirez joined with Monique Newton, the team’s floor leader, to build an offense that clicked night after night. Newton averaged 15 points and 8.5 assists a game.
Giving these girls some tough challenges all season long has paid off big. Instead of another “Hoosiers” movie, this one might be called “The Little School That Could.”