WASHOUGAL — Until the final month leading up to the season, uncertainty surrounded who would coach the Washougal girls basketball team and which players were returning.
The first question was answered when Tim Melcher was hired in late October and he met with the whole team, players and parents, shortly after.
It signified the start of a new era for a program with a high standard of success. The Panthers won a Class 2A state championship in 2019 and have reached the state tournament in all but one season since 2016.
One of the very first things players remember Melcher saying in that meeting was, despite the many recent changes, those standards built up over several years are staying exactly the same.
“From the very beginning, the first time we had a team meeting he said … ‘We’re at least going to get (to state). If not, we’re going to win, we’re going to work our butts off and we’re going to get there,’” senior Hadley Jones recalled. “The expectation is no lower than it was last year.”
The message resonated with players, and so far, they’re playing like a team intent on carrying that Washougal girls basketball tradition.
The Panthers have started 3-0 in the 3A Greater St. Helens League after claiming a 51-40 home win on Wednesday over Ridgefield, an up-and-coming team in the league that also has a first-year head coach in Lauren Hefflin, a Ridgefield alumna who played college basketball at Western Washington.
Stifling pressure defense set the tone for Washougal in a 23-6 opening quarter and a double-digit lead it maintained throughout the game. Jones led with 15 points and 10 rebounds, junior Isabella Albaugh chipped in 11 points and senior Chloe Johnson added nine points, seven assists and four steals.
“The fact that these girls are stepping into these roles with a new coach asking them to do new things, and looking to (Chloe), Hadley and Jaisa (Wilson) as their mentors, and to be able to feed off of that intensity … it makes it easy to coach,” said Melcher, a former assistant coach with the Clark College women’s basketball program with prior stints at Heritage and Ridgefield.
“They’re playing with confidence. When I took over (there was) the lack of confidence and belief that they could play at this level.”
While compiling this season’s roster, approximately 80 percent of which is new to varsity basketball, who would be available to play remained somewhat of an unknown.
Johnson is the team’s lone returning starter from last season’s team coached by Britney Ervin and led by program cornerstones Jaiden Bea and Savea Mansfield. Yet Johnson has dealt with nagging injuries to both knees that, at one point, appeared to keep her out for the first month of the season.
“She didn’t know if she was going to be able to play until January,” Melcher said. “She’s got two bad knees and the fact that she’s out here gritting these games out.”
Sophomore Lucy Albaugh, the younger sister of juniors Isabella Albaugh and Ireland Albaugh, initially wasn’t going to play this season, but was convinced to join by teammates and Melcher.
Then there was Jones, a reserve on last year’s team who was uncertain several months ago if she would play for the Panthers in her senior year.
“I just felt like there was not much left for me,” Jones said. “There were some situations and different influences that led me to feel like I wasn’t playing basketball anymore. It was a different game outside of that. But when (Melcher) came, I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to see how it works out.’ Because I love basketball so much … I’ve been playing since seventh grade, which isn’t super long, but since then, it’s been a really big part of me.”
The Panthers are thankful the 6-foot senior post gave it another shot. Last week against R.A. Long, Jones set a new program record with 22 rebounds, then followed it up with a 14-point, 19-rebound outing in a comeback win at Hudson’s Bay.
As Jones took on a substantially larger role and built up her own confidence, it trickled down to the rest of the team, Melcher said.
“That’s been my number one mission coming into this program,” Melcher said. “I looked at these girls, sat them all down and talked to them individually. It was a lack of confidence. It was, ‘we gave the ball to one person or two people last year, and we don’t know what we can do.’ Well, we’re going to find out.”
Washougal (3-2, 3-0 2A GSHL) will find out where it stands against the top of the league on Friday against Columbia River (4-2, 4-0). The winner of that game will have an early lead on the rest of the nine-team league.
“That’s going to be a test,” Melcher said. “But if we come out and play like we’re capable of, I mean, the sky’s the limit for this team.”
WASHOUGAL 51, RIDGEFIELD 40
RIDGEFIELD — Kylie Andrew 0, Savannah Chanda 10, Megan Weber 0, Nora Martin 0, Elizabeth Swift 22, Kaylen Wingerd 0, Morgan Goode 1, Makayla Ferguson 0, Janessa Chatman 5, Brooke Larson 2. Totals 14 (6) 6-13 40.
WASHOUGAL — Chloe Johnson 9, Jamie Maas 0, Danica Stinchfield 3, Addilyn Gibbons 0, Brooklyn Chase 2, Isabella Albaugh 11, Hadley Jones 15, Ireland Albaugh 6, Bre Alldrin 0, Riley Vaughan 0, Jaisa Wilson 5. Totals 20 (3) 8-13 51.
Ridgefield 6 10 12 12—40
Washougal 23 7 15 6—51
JV — Washougal 33-17