It was the season that wasn’t ending with a Cinderella shoe for any team in the 4A, 5A, and 6A classes of basketball, with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic washing out any potential championship to begin the new decade’s winter and spring sports seasons. For the Churchill Lancers, their pursuit was extinguished right before the storm by conference foe Crater, who had been swept in the regular season by Churchill. For senior sisters Natalie and Sophie Elstone, it meant back to back fourth place finishes to close out their careers, while Junior Tiara Bolden has one more opportunity to take a state title to Eugene. These three seasoned players chatted with me about their sports backgrounds, the gradual climb for Churchill, their role models, and the advice they have for the youth players….
Revisiting Their Roots
The roots of athletes can be a fascinating discovery of how and when their passions were discovered, along with what they mean personally to a player. For Tiara Bolden, she discovered that basketball is not only a game, but it is seen differently and bring many together in sharing a passion, “I first started playing basketball when I was five years old, and I have played on club teams as well! What I personally learned from these experiences is that people interpret basketball differently and how it’s not only a sport but a method for communities to come together.” Given that they are sisters, Sophie and Natalie have similar experiences, but unique perspectives nonetheless starting with Sophie, “I started playing basketball pretty young in elementary school and started competitive club in middle school. These past 2 years I’ve been on a travel team called Oregon Elite which has been a blast. I think through club ball is where I gained more love for the game since I was really enjoying just playing. You compete in so many games and travel all over and create some really strong bonds with teammates, it’s awesome!”
As for Natalie, “I started playing basketball around five years old. It was always my favorite sport and I loved going to watch the Oregon women when I was younger and they were my main role models. Jillian Alleyne was my personal favorite. Over the years I’ve played on travel teams, with the most recent being Oregon Elite. It has been a lot of fun traveling the country and playing ball with great friends. Club ball is actually just an amazing experience in general as it is more focused on your individual skill and you can really showcase that in front of college coaches.”
The Rise Of Churchill
Four years ago, Churchill struggled to advance past the opening round, dropping a first round road match to Hillsboro, and the year after they dropped a play-in game against Corvallis. These quick exits setup for the Lancers rematch last season against the Spartans in Round 1, with Churchill breaking through and going to Gill Coliseum before dropping to Springfield in the quarterfinals. Sophie, Natalie, and Tiara discussed the offseason changes that led to the great successes of the 2020 regular season, with Sophie discussing the mentality changes for the squad, “This season I think our mentality changed knowing what we were capable of. Our coach did an amazing job showing us what mattered and we were very defense oriented this year which was the biggest reason for most of our wins in league. Over the offseason playing club ball, organizing pick up games, and working with personal goals was what me and most of my teammates did.”
Natalie focused more on the hungry mindset of the Lancers, “After leaving in the first round last year, we knew we wanted more coming into this year. We held open gyms in the summer, worked hard to get everyone in zero period (a basketball class) in the fall, and really tried to change our mindset to be determined and hungry. Obviously, we got knocked out in the quarterfinals at Gill again this year, but going 16-0 in league was a huge deal for us.” Tiara put a bow on the discussion, “The biggest changes that I saw after obtaining fourth place was that once we made it to the tournament, our annual goal was to return to the next one! Things that made us successful throughout the season is communication and having trust in our teammates. Our toughest team this season would be Crater, these hard games taught me to persevere through fatigue and to always look for the open spaces on the court.” Sophie touched back on the keys to success this season, “Like I mentioned before defense was key to our success this year. We also had to battle through executing plays well and finishing through the whole 4 quarters. We had one of the toughest preseason schedules and I think that’s definitely what prepared us for league. Playing Wilsonville, La Salle, and Silverton and losing really gave us perspective for the rest of the year and knowing what we needed to prepare for.”
After putting a wrap on the season, I asked the girls to reflect and discuss their biggest takeaways from their time at Churchill. Natalie talked about the mental mindset again, “Churchill has taught me to be determined, to trust the process, and to enjoy it. I’ve met so many amazing people over these last 4 years playing basketball at Churchill and it really makes the moments like winning the league title even sweeter to enjoy it with a great team, coaching staff, and fans.” Tiara touches on how faith has gotten her to where she’s at, “The three years that I spent at Churchill went by really fast. But it took me time to finally have faith and trust in God, because all things are possible through him. As I get prepared for my last year at Churchill, I plan on being in the gym 24/7 like always, working on my endurance as well as my ball handling, shooting, and speed.” Sophie wrapped it up with a slogan that she’s followed, “Trust the process. That was our slogan going into my junior year and it’s something I think I will always remember. From going to never even getting to Gill to ending up fourth two years in a row was a huge improvement. I can’t wait to see what the team does next year, they have serious talent.”
Their Role Models And Being A Role Model
Just like most of my interviews, I ask athletes to get personal and discuss their drives, motivation, and role models to bring inspiration for others. These girls are no different, as I asked them to talk about who motivated them as athletes and serve as role models for them. For Sophie, growing up around the University of Oregon really did a number, as does having a twin sister, “Growing up in Eugene, I’ve been a huge follower of Oregon Ducks Women’s Basketball and I think all of their players inspired me to play ball. Personally, my twin sister Natalie also pushes me every day in many ways, and has completely shaped me to who I am today.” Natalie looks up to a household name as well, “I look up to Sabrina Ionescu a lot because she is such a role model for young women across the world and her devotion and love towards the game is unlike I’ve ever seen.”
For Tiara, its a bit closer to home with her role models, one of which faced the realities of racism in his own high school experience, “My biggest role models would be my grandparents as they set the foundation for everyone else in my family. My grandpa also played high school basketball, he had what it took in order to make varsity, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to play due to the color of his skin. As of last year, when he told me that I could really play basketball after denying my abilities for such a long time, he thought I was the best player out there. That inspired me greatly because that one sentence changed my game completely.”
She also looks to other figures in inspiration, “Another one of my biggest role models would be my uncle Claude, he was the one who would never hesitate to watch me play and give advice from a coaching point of view. He gave me inspiration because he has shown me unconditional love throughout the years and told me to “never be afraid”. My mother is one of my greatest role models because she always sees the good within the bad, she taught me that I am a game changer as she has seen me play throughout the years. As well as my Uncle Keith, when he was my age he travelled the world to play basketball, he overcame the odds, and made a name for himself. Which is exactly what I am trying to do for myself. Last but not least, Coach T. Ever since I started high school basketball he was always the person who would drop everything to train and play basketball with other people. He inspires me because he would always dedicate his time to basketball and never gave up on the things he believed in, like me.”
Finally, we wrapped it up with their personal advice to the youth girls who play sports! Sophie has subtle advice for the youth, “Advice to little girls would just be to put the work in and remember to have fun. If you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing, then I don’t believe that’s what you’re meant to do so remembering that part is so important!” Natalie says to enjoy the time with it, “My advice for young girls starting in sports would be to enjoy every minute you got and don’t be afraid to want it! It’s ok to be a competitive girl and chase your dreams.”
Tiara has a long line of advice for our next generation of athletes, “Little girls who want to play sports, just try it! You never know what you don’t like unless you try. When I was younger I didn’t know if I wanted to try other sports, I ended up playing volleyball. But I instantly began go back basketball because I was so attached. Also, if you love something you’ll find a way in order to do if you love it so much. Most importantly, have FUN! Time will fly so you have to live your life to the fullest and play while you can. Now that my season is over, I just think of all of these good memories that I had with my teammates and I want to go back in time, but I can’t. So enjoy the little things and cherish your time with whatever sport you play.”
Sophie will play college ball for Knox College in Galesburg, IL next year, while Natalie heads north to Lewis and Clark in Portland next year!