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March 27, 2023

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Heritage girls basketball follows Keanna Salavea’s lead

Senior has grown into leadership role with team

By , Columbian staff writer
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Heritage senior Keanna Salavea is the team’s leading scorer this season at 21.7 points a game and is also the emotional leader on the court.
Heritage senior Keanna Salavea is the team’s leading scorer this season at 21.7 points a game and is also the emotional leader on the court. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Basketball was once an escape for Keanna Salavea, a space to clear her mind and heal from the pain of losing her older brother.

Midway through high school, it became a source of stress.

She put a lot of pressure on herself to elevate the Heritage girls basketball team, all while following in the footsteps of Katie Peneueta, a major figure in the program two grades ahead of Salavea.

“I really just lost the love for the sport. I didn’t feel connected to it,” Salavea said.

For perspective, Salavea took a step back. She turned to her faith, which remains a big part of her life, and her family. She thought about the relationships she created with her teammates and coaches. It reminded her of why she started to love the sport in the first place.

She needed Heritage as much as Heritage needed her.

Once Salavea came to those realizations and fully embraced her starring role, the rest of the team rallied behind her.

The 6-foot-1 senior, a four-year varsity starter, has always been a skilled and physically gifted player. She’s currently averaging 21.7 points per game, the second most in Southwest Washington.

But the most important piece for the Timberwolves right now is Salavea’s leadership. It’s something head coach Jacob Kaler asked his star senior to improve on when she came into the program as a freshman.

She’s come a long way three years later.

“She’s really encouraging of her teammates, she’s loud on the bench and she really takes this to heart like it’s a family. It really means a lot to her,” Kaler said. “… She wants it so bad. The killer (instinct), the will to win, the competitive greatness.”

Of all the players Kaler has coached, few can match the competitive edge Salavea plays with, and specifically, her ability to bring her best at times her team needs it most.

When asked where her competitiveness comes from, Salavea answers without hesitation.

“My brother,” she said.

Salavea’s introduction to the sport came playing against her older brother, Luther Salavea, at Silver Star Elementary School.

Despite being the youngest sibling, Keanna was never given the benefit of an easy game. Instead, he played “bully ball” against her, and it became Keanna’s mission to win one.

“I was like, ‘I know one day that I’d beat him,’ ” Keanna Salavea said. “I have another brother (Niko), we used to play with him too, and he knows I can beat him in basketball now. Also, they all played football. They all had that competitive fire in them. Just growing up with them, I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’m going to win too. They’re not going to be the only ones winning.’ ”

Luther died in 2015, the summer before Keanna started sixth grade. He was 15.

The following school year, Keanna began playing basketball competitively at Covington Middle School.

“I started playing basketball for my brother once he passed away to clear my mind,” she said, “and I healed from that.”

Kaler, Heritage’s head coach since 2018, caught many of Salavea’s games her eighth grade year and saw a player flashing potential. She was a starter from the get-go as a freshman at Heritage playing alongside Peneueta, then a junior.

That 2019-20 season was also Heritage’s last in the 4A Greater St. Helens League before the school dropped down to 3A. The Timberwolves suffered their share of losses against the likes of Union, Skyview and Camas. In those tough moments, Salavea’s competitiveness sometimes got the best of her.

“Freshman year I was a hothead,” Salavea said. “My teammates, they can say I was a hothead.”

Kaler approached Salavea to talk about her leadership and communication style, how she handled herself and how she addressed teammates when the team faced challenges.

“The conversation was primarily about short-term memory, believing in yourself, forgetting the (previous) play, forgetting that shot and moving on to the next play,” Kaler said. “Communicating with your teammates and not making it personal. Saying myself included, saying, ‘hey, we all need to do x, y and z.’ ”

“I remember them saying that I needed to be more understanding, and as a freshman, I was like, ‘why do I need to be more understanding?’ ” Salavea recalled. “… I was always just trying to see it from my perspective, just like, this is how I feel. I never really took into consideration how they felt.”

Kaler also sought the help of Peneueta and suggested Salavea shadow her older teammate to observe how she carried herself, played with composure and provided an example for others to follow.

Kaler believes Salavea’s experience learning from Peneueta paved the way for where she and her teammates are now.

After Heritage won the 3A GSHL title in the shortened spring 2021 season, Peneueta graduated and went on to play college basketball at Sacramento State.

The following winter, Salavea’s junior season, was her time to lead. She saw the consequences of her actions, good and bad, on the rest of her team.

If Salavea wasn’t having a good practice, chances were it would rub off on her teammates too.

Conversely, she also worked on “situational leadership,” taking note of her teammates’ tendencies, while recognizing how and when she should pick each of them up.

She saw this process play out with her teammate, Victoria Males, who Salavea describes as a hard worker, but also has a tendency to be her own biggest critic. If Salavea saw Males drop her head after a missed shot in practice, Salavea would often say, “Next shot. Tell yourself you got that shot the next time.”

On one particular occasion, Males saw Salavea do the same thing during a practice. What happened next was a sign that Salavea’s leadership was leaving an impression on teammates.

“She turned to me and she’s like, ‘hey, you got the next one,’ ” Salavea said. “Like what you tell me, I’m going to tell you. She was there to pick me up.”

“I don’t know how to describe it, but when you see her smile on the court, you know she’s having fun. It just brings everybody else up so much,” Males added. “It makes us feel more competitive and it’s just us having fun together.”

During some of the dark moments earlier in Salavea’s high school career, she often turned to her favorite passage of scripture, Romans 8:18, which means, “The pain that you’ve been feeling, can’t compare to the joy that’s coming.”

Sometimes, she still thinks about it.

Heritage dropped a grueling overtime battle against 3A GSHL rival Evergreen on Jan. 20. It made the Timberwolves’ path to the postseason more challenging with three league games left to play.

And yet, Salavea isn’t worried.

“I know there’s going to be way more joyful moments,” she said, “whether it’s playing that game before state, or playing a playoff game, because I do believe this team has what it takes.”

If Salavea believes that, chances are her teammates do too.