Pe Ell girls basketball season came to a screeching halt out of seemingly nowhere for junior Charlie Carper and senior Kayla Miller.
It was the week after volleyball season ended when Carper and Miller were notified they wouldn’t have enough players to field a team. The season was going to be outright canceled.
“It was very last minute, to the point where we had no idea and it was so late all the other teams had their schedules and everything made,” Carper said. “Everyone kept insisting we’d have a team. Girls kept saying they’d play, then last minute all of them said, ‘no.’”
It sent Pe Ell Athletic Director Keith Shepherd scrambling to find another school’s team for Carper and Miller to join. But everywhere he turned, he couldn't find any takers. Many schools couldn’t add any players without having to move up a classification.
It got to the point where Carper was planning to play for the boys team, and was even practicing with them for a bit. She was no stranger to playing on boys teams. She played football in middle school and even joined boys basketball teams in fifth and sixth grade.
But after reaching out to four different schools across the Central 2B League and 2B Pacific League, Shepherd finally found a landing spot for the girls: Winlock.
The only stipulation was the team would compete solely as Winlock High School, not a combined Winlock-Pe Ell team, such as Pe Ell-Willapa Valley do with football, baseball and softball.
“Winlock was willing, so we went ahead and started the process,” Shepherd said. “Timing was kind of everything with this. We appreciate Winlock’s opportunity with these girls. Otherwise, neither of them would have had the opportunity to play this year.
“Especially with (Miller) being a senior this year, and she really wanted to play basketball. So this provided a great opportunity for both of the girls to play.”
Not only did it help Carper and Miller, but it was a huge boost to a Cardinals team that was looking for extra firepower. The Cardinals are led by seniors Addison Hall and Madison Vigre. Hall, a first-team, all-league and all-area selection from a year ago, averaged 18.3 points and 9.8 rebound per game.
With Carper, who was a first-team, all-league pick in the 1B Columbia Valley League last season after averaging 17.4 points per game, the Cards are a brand-new team.
Carper was excited to finally find a team to play on. She’s been on a bunch of rec teams and enjoys playing with and meeting new people. But, of course, there was some nervousness, too. She played against Winlock last season, but had never met any of its players before. She wasn’t sure if or how she would fit in.
“It was very nerve-wracking because I didn’t know if they were going to like me coming in or, like, how we were going to work together,” Carper said. “I was extremely nervous.”
But it was Hall, the Cardinals’ leader, who would put all those doubts to rest. Hall texted Carper two days before Carper was set to meet the team during their first practice.
Hall and Vigre were watching 2B volleyball state in Yakima when coach Dracy McCoy texted them saying two Pe Ell girls were joining the team.
“I sent her a message saying we were excited to have her,” Hall said. “I just wanted to make her comfortable because it’s not fun coming to a practice when you don’t know anyone. I didn’t want her to be too nervous.”
And when Carper and Miller finally showed up for that first practice, there was no awkwardness, no tension. The Cardinals welcomed Carper and Miller with open arms.
“A lot of them welcomed me very fast,” Carper said. “They were very kind and I haven’t had any rude, like, reaction to me on the team.”
McCoy said the entire team was happy when she announced Carper and Miller were joining the team, and even more so when they finally met them for the first time.
“They saw how (Carper) could fit in with us, how she helps us and how we can help her,” McCoy said of Carper. “She always has a positive attitude and is a likeable person.”
Though the Cardinals accepted Carper and Miller quickly, it’s taken some time for everyone to gel and work together as a team. It’s understandable, given Carper and Miller are learning a new system while the Cardinals are adding two players they’ve never competed with.
“I’m learning how they play and they’re learning how I play,” Carper said. “So as we’re growing together and practicing together, we’re being able to work with each other more.”
It may not have looked like there were any chemistry issues at first as Winlock hammered Three Rivers Christian in the season opener for a 66-16 win. Carper was excellent in her Cardinal debut, finishing with a near triple-double of 12 points, nine rebounds and nine steals.
They would then jump out to a 4-1 start with wins over Castle Rock, Adna and Toutle Lake, with their only loss coming to an Onalaska team that’s currently 7-2 overall.
Then came a two-loss skid, at the hands of Rainier (4-3) and Napavine (4-2), before rebounding with a 51-31 victory over Castle Rock on Dec. 22.
The Cardinals are currently sitting at 5-3 overall with some big tests on the horizon in Toledo (6-2) on Jan. 5 and defending district champion Wahkiakum (7-2) on Jan. 7.
For the 5-foot-8 Carper, who played a lot of minutes in the paint last season for Pe Ell, the biggest change is she’s now being asked to be the team’s primary ball handler. It makes sense, given her lightning-fast court speed and ability to break defense’s presses and traps.
“There are new roles I have to fill and learn,” Carper said. “It’s very exciting but it was frustrating at first. You don’t want to let people down, because you’re new to that area.”
She was The Chronicle’s track and field athlete of the year on the girls side last season after being the only girl in the coverage area to win two individual events at districts. She won the long jump (13-06) and the 100-meter dash in a time of 13.5 seconds.
For now, the Cardinals are still building camaraderie and teamwork, still working out the kinks and figuring out how to coexist and be successful together.
Carper is used to playing at 110 miles per hour, and at Winlock she’s being asked to reel everything back in and play more composed in order to help the team execute the way it needs to.
“I like to just get things and go,” Carper said. “But coach tells me I have to slow down. Sometimes I’m in such a rush, even I can’t stop myself. There’s so many times I’ve fallen through walls.”
But Carper and her teammates are learning to work together more and more each game, and she’s shining. She’s currently averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds and four steals per game, and has tallied five double-doubles, so far.
Opposing teams having to account for her has also freed up her teammates as well. Hall is averaging 19 points per game, while role players Kindyl Kelly and Maia Chaney have both seen recent surges in the past few games.
“Having Charlie has made (Kelly and Chaney) more confident,” McCoy said. “She makes us a well-rounded team.”
Hall doubled down on that, saying Carper has elevated the expectations and play of the entire team.
“Everyone’s confidence has skyrocketed,” Hall said. “Having her join gave everyone confidence that we could go to state. We can be top five in our league.”
Carper and the Cardinals have their sights set on Winlock’s first state bid since 2004, when the team placed sixth at state.
Before the Cardinals’ first game, each player made a poster with all their goals for the season. Everyone’s included qualifying for state.
“We have very high hopes,” Carper said. “We just want to go to state. We really think there’s a chance, now, this year. I feel like this year there’s a lot of hope that we can.”