WINLOCK — A small cluster of cars sit in the back parking lot at Winlock High School; The thumping sound of a dribbling basketball and the screeching of sneakers on a gym floor filters out of a double-door propped open.
It’s a sound not heard in this area for nearly six months until just recently, and one greatly welcomed by the Winlock girls basketball team on the heels of a summer filled with almost zero sports going on statewide.
The Cardinals are here on Thursday night, in a pod of five, one less than the WIAA-mandated size due to a player missing. But nonetheless, the team is going through light-contact two-on-two drills, weight lifting and honing offensive sets. Winlock coach Tori Nelson had just one word to summarize the feeling of being back in the gym:
“Glorious,” Nelson said. “I think everybody needs this, at least with a distraction. It feels good.”
The team’s first practice was Oct. 6, nearly a week after the WIAA opened up practices statewide for high-school teams. The WIAA updated its return-to-play guidelines on Oct. 6, allowing teams in high-risk counties, which Lewis County is currently in, to practice in groups of six with brief, close contact (three-on-three drills). No tournaments are allowed and scrimmages, intra-team competitions, league games and competitions are allowed only for low-risk sports, which include cross country, golf, swim and dive, tennis and track and field. Basketball is currently in the high-risk category.
Prep basketball teams in Lewis County can’t begin competition until the county is in Phase 4, a low-risk category, meaning 25 or less per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, combined with a less than 5 percent positivity rate. Lewis County is currently in Phase 3 and has 151 cases per 100,000 with a 3.4 percent positivity rate.
It’s left Nelson and many coaches in the county worried with basketball preseason slated to begin with preseason practices on Nov. 2., just weeks away. What makes it even more difficult is the Cardinals are set to improve tremendously from the 7-13 team from a year ago that fell one game short of a playoff berth.
“I’m nervous,” Nelson said. “If we don’t get to phase 4, we don’t get to play. This would be our year to make some noise… We have to have a season, because these seniors and two juniors are hungry. This is our shot. I think we will be in the mix this year.”
The entire squad is back, including junior star Addison Hall, a 5-foot-10 post/wing combo, who was a first-team all-Central 2B League selection last season. Hall was the only Lewis County player, girl or boy, to average a double-double in 2019-20, posting 18.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
Nelson will also lean on a trio of seniors, Azhia Camps, a 5-foot-3 guard; Elizabeth Wolfe, a 5-foot-8 post; and Karlie Jones, a 5-foot-9 wing who broke her finger near the end of the season.
“Our seniors have come a long way,” Nelson said. “A lot of confidence, especially Karlie. She played the best game of her career that night, and after that I think she finally realized the player she could be and carried that over to this year.”
The players are equally as optimistic as Nelson, Hall said. As of now, the only time the players actually spend at the high school physically is during practice as the district is in distance learning.
“It’s good,” Hall said. “It sucks not being able to do anything, so it’s good just to be in our own school at least.”
The team is split up into two practice teams of six, a Monday and Wednesday group and a Tuesday and Thursday group, which Hall is a part of. After a long summer filled with sports cancellations, Hall performed as much individual training as she could to stay in shape. Now she’s busier than ever. She’s a part of the Hoopstars Family, an AAU team based in Olympia, which means she’s currently practicing every weekday now.
But it was that first day of Cardinals’ practice on Oct. 6 that was most satisfying.
“It was good that we could all come back as a team and start working,” Hall said. “The season is, hopefully, coming up. I’m excited.”