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Class of Their Own: Five seniors lead one of Clark County’s deepest talent pools in recent years

By Andy Buhler, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: December 20, 2018, 7:29pm
2 Photos
Prairie's Cassidy Gardner, from left, Washougal's Beyonce Bea, La Center's Taylor Stephens, Camas' Haley Hanson, and Prairie's Brooke Walling.
Prairie's Cassidy Gardner, from left, Washougal's Beyonce Bea, La Center's Taylor Stephens, Camas' Haley Hanson, and Prairie's Brooke Walling. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the winter of 2014, Seton Catholic athletic director Phil Kent knew it would be his last season as the head coach of the school’s girls basketball team and he was looking for a replacement.

That’s when he contacted local club coach and personal friend Steve Gardner.

Seton’s girls basketball team didn’t have a gym of their own at the time, so they practiced at the All-Star Basketball Academy courts in east Vancouver, a club Gardner owns to this day.

There was no official job offer, nor did Gardner even apply, but through a series of informal conversations, Kent inquired on Gardner’s interest. At the time, Gardner had just begun coaching an eighth grade girls AAU team that included four future standouts from around the area — Brooke Walling, Cassidy Gardner, Taylor Stephens and Beyonce Bea.

The wheels began to spin in his head. What if the four AAU players decided to apply to Seton and play for him?

Steve Gardner and Kent say the idea never went past a couple of informal conversations. But to this day, it’s the girls’ favorite ‘what-if scenario’ as their friendship has strengthened.

“They bring it up all the time, about how fun that would have been,” Steve Gardner said. “Looking back, I wish it would have happened.”

Four years removed, the girls comprise one of the most talented classes of seniors recent years in Clark County girls basketball.

Walling, a Fresno State signee and Cassidy Gardner, a Portland State signee, are multi-year starters at Prairie.

Bea, who has signed with Idaho, is a four-year starter and all-time leading scorer at Washougal.

Stephens, a Central Washington signee, has scored well over 1,000 points at La Center.

The four remain AAU teammates under Gardner. Two years ago, they added a fifth Clark County senior in Camas’ Haley Hanson, who has signed to play at Northwest Nazarene. R.A. Long standout Easton Reeves and Union junior Mason Oberg are also on the team.

When the ABA takes the court, the entire starting five is essentially a Clark County super team. All five starters were on The Columbian’s All-Region team last season.

What began as a bond on the court between some of the area’s top girls basketball players grew into a deep friendship off the court.

And together, the girls round out the largest talent pool across any winter sport in Clark County, as they get set to join a growing list of area players advancing to play Division I and II college basketball.

Signing Day

Students and staff filed into the Prairie High School auditorium during the lunch hour on a Wednesday in mid-November As the seats reached capacity, students, family and friends settled for standing room as they faced the stage.

That’s where six athletes sat at a table adorned with balloons, facing the audience. It was the first day of the early signing period for high school recruits who were ready to sign with a college.

Walling and Cassidy Gardner were among the signees. Their AAU teammates — Bea, Hanson and Oberg — were in attendance.

Some skipped school to be there. It was too important, they said. A group of them then drove up to La Center for the Wildcats’ early signing day ceremony that same afternoon.

The next day, Hanson held her signing ceremony for Northwest Nazarene at her house and two days later, Bea went though hers at Washougal. Both cases, ABA teammates showed up.

“It was awesome to know they support me and they’re there for me,” Hanson said.

Added Bea: “It just shows how close we are and how much we care for each other. We all want to support each other and this is what we’ve been playing for our entire AAU careers, is playing college ball.”

Different Schools, Same Team

When Ashley Corral went to Prairie, where she was Gatorade state player of the year in 2008, she knew every other elite high school basketball player well. They all trained at the same place.

But this year’s seniors are different. There’s a deeper connection off the court, she said.

As the presence of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball Circuit has grown, club ball has stretched, in some instances, into the high school season. It’s a noticeable change, according to Corral, now an assistant coach at Prairie.

“It’s way more time consuming,” Corral said. “We never even thought about club ball until after season. I’ve known some club teams had tryouts last two weeks (before the season) … to try to lock players in for the spring.”

Corral is the most decorated high school basketball player to come out of Clark County. She played in the McDonald’s All-American game, won the 3-point contest and went on to start four years at USC before bouncing around the WNBA and professional basketball overseas.

Former Prairie coach Al Aldridge said in his experience, the top players in the county becoming friends is not out of the ordinary. In 2000, as a coach for what is now known as the McDonald’s All-American game, he recalls Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard — now both transformative WNBA players — playing in a class of 20 kids from around the country, and knowing every player.

“Taurasi would say, ‘I want to guard this person and lock them down,'” Aldridge said. “That’s when I noticed it at even the highest level in the country, the players are friends.”

Aldridge coached Prairie’s girls program from 1974 to 2012. He still coaches club in the area, and has coached Walling, Gardner, Hanson and Bea at the club level.

Through Prairie and club, he’s coached over 30 players who went on to NCAA Division I or II schools dating back to the mid-80s — including Corral. This year’s seniors, he says, are a continuation of a region that has produced talent over the years.

“I think Southwest Washington is still a hotbed for good players. Some of the state’s better players consistently come out of this area,” Aldridge said. “Hot spots are Spokane, Seattle and here. For being population-wise a lot smaller than those other communities, I still think Clark County does pretty darn well.”

Where the players differ from the pack is how much they hang out off the court, he said.

“These kids have taken it a step further because of proximity,” he said. “They’re close.”

Repping on the Road

When the five hit the road for AAU tournaments against teams from all around the country, they’re no longer thinking about being a Prairie Falcon, a La Center Wildcat or a Camas Papermaker.

They’re representing Southwest Washington — and often, the state at large. That becomes immediately evident when they meet someone in a far away city.

“People ask us where we’re from and we say ‘Washington’ and they’re like, ‘where from?’ We say ‘Vancouver … no, the other Vancouver,’ ” Hanson said. “No one cares what city we live in, Washington is our state.”

This past summer, the team traveled to Chicago, Arizona, Las Vegas, Louisville and San Diego to play AAU tournaments against some of the top competition.

The five experience airports, car rides, hotels and long waits between games with one another, which creates a unique bond.

“We get to spend a lot of time with each other,” Bea said. “We’re our family the whole entire month of July.”

None of the five seniors go to schools that are league opponents, but over the four seasons, the girls have faced off against one another on occasion.

When La Center and Washougal would play a nonleague game each year, Stephens and Bea would face off and if you looked closely, the two would be jawing back and forth at each other, each with a smile on their face.

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That bond was fused over years of time spent together on and off the court through AAU. Once the girls go off to college, they say they will keep tabs on each other’s basketball career.

Bea and Gardner will play each other every year in the Big Sky. Hanson and Stephens will face off every year in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

This past July, the group was sitting in an airport waiting to catch a flight from Las Vegas after a tournament and one of them posed the question: What could we have been, if we all went to Seton Catholic?

“We’d be such a powerhouse,” Stephens said. “The thought of it would have been so crazy.”

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Columbian Staff Writer