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State champs want chip back on their shoulders

There were times two seasons ago when Spring Valley girls basketball coach Billy Hemberger wondered if all the work he was putting in was worth it.

Mired in a 1-24 season, the Grizzlies kept fighting, but showed few signs of becoming a winning team.

Until last season.

The work Hemberger, his staff and the veteran players put in, combined with a move to Division I-A and an influx of young talent, helped Spring Valley to one of the largest turnarounds in state history, a 30-1 record and the Division I-A state championship.

Now comes the even harder part: repeating that success.

“We constantly had a chip on our shoulder of it being us against the world,” Hemberger said of last year’s team. “We got to live through it, we got to win it, we got to celebrate it, but it’s a new year. I took the state championship trophy out of my office. I don’t wear my ring, nothing, to put that chip back on our shoulder like we had last year.”

The Grizzlies return four starters, including two of the most talented guards in the state in sophomores Essence Booker and Kayla Harris, as they look for a second consecutive title.

“Last year we had to prove to everyone what we could do,” said Booker, who averaged 18.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 steals per game last year. “This year, everyone knows what we’re capable of so in order for us to get there again, we have to work harder. We’re not settling for what we did last year.”

It’s a far cry from where the program was when Hemberger took over.

The Grizzlies were 3-16 the season before Hemberger arrived and the 1-24 season in 2013-14 made the coach second guess his choice to guide the program.

“I am extremely competitive, and it just killed me,” Hemberger said. “There were times two years ago when I had a breaking point of should I even do this any more, and I just had to think of the long-term plan. My junior varsity team was loaded, and I knew the players that were coming up, I knew there was a future. Then to have those two freshmen come in, it was kind of the perfect storm.”

The Grizzlies started last season with 13 consecutive wins before suffering their only loss — a 50-46 setback to Buena (Calif.) in the Gator Winter Classic tournament — then rattled off 17 straight wins to close the season.

Booker and Harris (18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg) were big reasons for the turnaround.

“Their gamesmanship, their work ethic, their drive; those two players have my back moreso than any two that I’ve seen with that talent,” Hemberger said. “Those two really have taken to my lead. They go out own their own and build their skills, but it’s scary what they can be and what they can do.”

But they are not the team’s only weapons.

Among those Hemberger expects big contributions from are junior forwards Lynnae Wilds and Myra Tadytin. Their development inside could force defenses to focus less on the two guards.

“Teams believe it’s a two-man team,” said Booker. “Each individual made the team for a reason. We all contribute.”

Said Hemberger: “We have to be better because other teams will be better, and they will adjust to what we do. If we stay the same, we’re not going to have the same success.”

Still, the Grizzlies expect to get every opponent’s best game. Gone are the days when teams took Spring Valley for granted.

“There’s a huge target on our backs,” Harris said. “We just want to be successful again. We’re not worried about someone else. We just need to do what we do.”

— Contact reporter Bartt Davis at bdavis@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5230.

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