Walking With Warriors

The 2020 girls basketball season was one of astronomic hopes and aspirations for Philomath, who were coming into the year looking for redemption from a semifinal loss in 2019. The train was running full steam down the tracks, hitting an occasional bump in the track, but otherwise unbothered by their stingy and hard fighting opponents. Just like many teams, they were preparing for their first round match at the state tournament when they received the news of complete cancellation, shattering the dream of a 2020 state title. In the aftermath and some reflection, seniors Emma Pankalla, Lara Hunter, and Alexis Van Vlack, alongside sophomore Sage Kramer, talk about their own journeys and the Philomath program, sharing their stories and perspectives on the past couple of years and advice for the future Warriors that go through Philomath.

Finding Your Roots

In modern country music, there is a wave of songs and albums talking about the roots from which we all originate from. I asked each of the girls to talk about their own roots, specifically in terms of how they became involved in the sport that they all have a passion for and love so much. For Van Vlack, Pankalla, and Kramer, it started as soon as they could play competitively….

Emma Pankalla: “I started playing basketball as early as it was possible. From an early age my dad and I bonded over it and it was something I grew to love. I played on tournament teams through middle school. I learned how important it was to work hard. Going into high school, I knew I was going to have to out work everybody if I wanted to reach my goals.”

Sage Kramer: “I started playing basketball when I was 5. I’ve played with fast basketball the last 3 years for club ball. Before high school, basketball taught me mental toughness and teamwork.”

Photo: Eric Watkins

Alexis Van Vlack: “I started playing basketball as soon as you could in first grade. My dad is the JV boys coach and basketball has always been a big part of my family’s lives. I learned quickly that it is important to be a team player and this was something that really helped me while playing during high school.”

For Lara Hunter, it might not have started as early on in life, but it has a deep personal connection for her, as it served as a way to model herself after her older sister and connect with her family…Lara Hunter: “I began playing basketball when I was in 5th grade, I never played much and only joined the team because my older sister was playing on the team. I just wanted to copy whatever she did. From there I began to love the sport as it was a way to connect with my family. Playing basketball in elementary and middle school had taught me to not be afraid of the opponent ahead, as I played for a small school that did not have a large selection of “athletes”. I often would find myself practicing with the 7th grade boys in the offseason because I did not play tournament ball.”

Taking Heartbreak And Making Determination

The 2019 season ended with a loss to Baker High School in the state semifinals, giving Philomath every reason to be motivated and determined to win a state title in 2020. Before they went into full destruction mode on their 2020 schedule, the girls had to soak in the loss and turn it into determination. Each of the players went through the differences from 2019 to 2020 for the Warriors, along with their own personal work for it. For Van Vlack, it was a simple difference maker from one season to the next, “The big difference from last season to this one was our team chemistry and focus.” She also touched on the help of Coach Ben Silva, “This year we knew how far we could get and kept that as our main focus each week. Coach Silva was really good at incorporating our end goal into everything that we did.”

For Lara Hunter, the heartbreak was tough, but she took a toughness mindset from it into the summer and 2020 season, “Personally, I took it to heart when we lost at state last season. It was quite honestly the most heartbreaking feeling that I had ever experienced (until the ending of this season). With that heartbreak I used it to make myself better. Thinking about that loss nearly everyday really improved my mindset towards the game, losing builds character. I hoped that this loss would make me up my mental game as well as defensive effort, and that is exactly what it did. Coming back into this season I had noticed an entirely different group of girls in front of me. During last summer we traveled to Grants Pass and participated in a tournament there. I remember one of our last games walking into the 90 degree gym and thinking to myself “well, try your best and don’t lose by 20.” Much to my surprise we had fought and stuck with this team from start to finish. Getting the victory over a much larger school with much more diversity than we had was such a satisfying feeling. That summer tournament was when I had finally realized just how good we really were.”

Photo: Eric Watkins

Emma Pankalla went the route of changing the mental mindset for the big games, “I personally worked on being excited for big games like the state tournament, because in the end that’s what you work and play for. Instead of being nervous, I became excited to go out and compete against good competition. As for our team, we began to understand how good we actually were, and how much talent we had.” Sage Kramer focused her efforts on becoming better physically and in her skills, “I worked pretty hard during the off season, with one big focus being athleticism and strength. I also worked to improve my moves around the basket and shooting accuracy. This year our team had much better chemistry and we all got along well on and off the court. The overall flow felt better.”

The Magic From Within

The 2020 Philomath Warriors were nothing short of dominant and magical, and were more likely than ever to be on their way to a state championship banner. Even though the year came to an abrupt and disappointing ending, the team was special in their own right, something that the girls talked about and what made the team the way they were…

Lara Hunter: “This season was filled with memories that can be told for a lifetime. The laughs, the support, the overwhelming singing on the bus rides to and from games…it is all very bittersweet to think about right now. What we had to offer that no other team did was the culture. The previous year Coach Silva had talked about building a better culture here at Philomath High School, we never once recognized what he was talking about until we saw the results on the court. The chemistry throughout the team is unmatched. That chemistry ignited our fire that led to our success. With chemistry comes trust, the trust that weaved within this team was something special. I had trust in all my teammates, coaches, and community surrounding me. In my head and heart I knew they also trusted me. That combination of trust, chemistry, and love for the game that all of us individually possessed is what led us on such a successful path.”

Sage Kramer: “I think that our team had a lot of grit. We were good at battling back and not giving up even when we were down. We all had the same goal in mind that we were working hard for the entire season.”

Photo: Eric Watkins

Emma Pankalla: “We all came to practice every single day ready to work hard. We played for each other and were all in. We all were on the same page, and we wanted to go all the way. The thing that made us stand out the most is how resilient we were. Multiple times this season we were down by double digits and had to grind out every possession to work our way back into games and win them. We also just had fun when we played. I think it was easy to see how much we loved going out and playing Warrior basketball together.”

Alexis Van Vlack: “In all my years of playing basketball, this team was my favorite to be a part of. Everyone had a role. Mia and Emma were two players who brought a lot competitiveness. They were the two that would get the rest of the team riled up. Emma would get a lot of fast breaks and assists down to Mia which would speed up the speed of the game. Meanwhile, Braedyn brought a lot of energy to the court and was always flying around on defense. Sage was someone who also brought a lot of intensity and who was usually a leading scorer. Rivers could play wherever she needed to and brought more of a calm competitiveness. She was good at communicating on the court.”

Looking Back

For seniors Alexis Van Vlack, Emma Pankalla, and Lara Hunter, their senior season didn’t end the way any expected, but their careers are full of rich, plentiful memories at Philomath. I asked the senior girls to dig deep and uncover their favorite memories, sharing their memories of their time as Warriors…

Alexis Van Vlack: “In all my years of playing basketball, this team was my favorite to be a part of. Everyone had a role. Mia and Emma were two players who brought a lot competitiveness. They were the two that would get the rest of the team riled up. Emma would get a lot of fast breaks and assists down to Mia which would speed up the speed of the game. Meanwhile, Braedyn brought a lot of energy to the court and was always flying around on defense. Sage was someone who also brought a lot of intensity and who was usually a leading scorer. Rivers could play wherever she needed to and brought more of a calm competitiveness. She was good at communicating on the court.”

Photo: Eric Watkins

Emma Pankalla: “We went to the Grants Pass tournament this summer and played some really good competition and ended up winning all of our games. We all played so relaxed and worked as a single unit and that’s why we were so successful. We also went white water rafting as a team and that was such a fun memory. The Marshfield tournament this year was a grind because we were all sick, but we played Astoria and came out on top and that was a super fun game. Last year at the state tournament we were able to come together, and beating Banks was a huge accomplishment for us. Everyday at practice, every pregame, every bus ride, and everything in between was honestly so fun to experience with this group of girls and our coaches, and  we’re so lucky to be able to play together.”

Lara Hunter: “One of my favorite memories takes place in Grants Pass. It was right after we had arrived back to our campground after a long day of basketball then swimming. As a team we had decided to walk over to the sand volleyball courts to play with the only volleyball we had brought. It started as some innocent peppering over the net then soon turned in to real competition amongst us. Braedyn, being a soccer player, decided she wanted to lead the team on her half of the net. By the end of the game we had all been out of breath from laughing so hard at how terrible we all were besides the real volleyball players. We soon learned that we actually were not too bad at that sport compared to our assistant coaches. The rest of the evening was spent laughing and trying to learn how to play a card game around the campfire.”

Passing The Torch

Finally, just like every school, the generations seem to pass through very quickly and life moves on. Eventually, all of these girls will be collegiate graduates while the newer generations are wearing their old jerseys at Philomath, keeping the torch alive and well. Each player provided their advice to the future generations, drawing from their memories and lessons they have learned from their time at Philomath..

Sage Kramer: “One big thing I’ve learned is that high school goes so fast and you never know when you’ll play your last game. It’s important to play every game like it’s your last and hold on to the moment. Always work hard and make sure to have fun with basketball. Trust the coaches and the process. Going into last year I was a little skeptical of the new coaches but they have been amazing and have pushed  us to be better.”

Alexis Van Vlack: “If I could give advice to future players, it would be to soak it all in- every practice and game and bus ride, because it truly goes by so fast. I would also say that playing basketball is about so much more than your actual playing time and the earlier you understand that the better off you’ll be. Find out what your role is, then get really good at it.”

Photo: Eric Watkins

Emma Pankalla: “Be all in. Every single day you have to work your hardest if you want to be successful. I have been a part of teams that did not do well, and it was because our best was not required. In this program you have to give it your all or you will not play and not win games. Our coaching staff is incredible and cares about you. Turn to them and trust them and they will not let you down. Be humble in your success but don’t settle for being average. Working hard and caring about something is a good thing, and all your hard work will pay off. Enjoy every single moment of playing basketball. Before you know it, it will be senior night, and you’ll look back and wish you could do it all over again. The dirty thirties, early practices and Warrior Wednesday’s won’t seem that bad. Be proud to wear Philomath across your chest and represent what it means to be a Warrior every time you step out onto the court.”

Lara Hunter: To the future Philomath Girls Basketball Players: 

Cherish all of the time you have there. There will be days you go home and feel like never touching another basketball again. But for those days that you do feel like quitting, remember how it feels to step out on the court with a whole community behind you. Remember how it felt to scream at the top of your lungs in the locker room before every game. Remember all the times that “Chicken Fried” was sung on the bus rides. Just take it all in. You are entering into one of the safest places in the world. Nobody will push you away or make you feel as though you are not wanted. I transferred to Philomath my junior year of high school. It was not easy seeing new faces or team members. But not once did they turn me away. This program wants each and every person that enters into it. The coaching staff is incredible, the most kindhearted group of people that devote their every second into this sport. Finally, when Coach gets on your back about things, do not take it to heart. This program cares about who you are as a person. Being a great athlete means nothing if you are not a good person. 

Sincerely, 

Former Philomath Girls Basketball Player 

Lara Hunter 

Alexis Van Vlack plans on pursuing a career in social work, and Lara Hunter is heading into the nursing field for their collegiate plans!

Photo: Eric Watkins

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