Photo By Emily Collins, photo by Mike Turner
5A/4A Inland Empire League Preview
Written by Brandon Hill
Players to Watch
Madison Symons, Coeur d’Alene
Brooklyn Rewers, Lake City
Dylan Lovett, Post Falls
Peyton Watson, Moscow
Hattie Larson, Sandpoint
Katy Ryan, Lakeland
While teams across the state are focusing on their respective conference races, the squads of the north will be looking to opponents in multiple classifications to help bolster their standing in this year’s district tournament.
The 5A and 4A Inland Empire joined forces last summer, entering an arrangement that binds the two classifications together for a more cohesive schedule.
Regardless of the logistical shakeup, the Inland Empire has an uphill battle should any girls team want to represent the conference in this year’s state title matchup. In 2020, just one team won a playoff game in February — Sandpoint over Burley 40-39.
But besides that one victory, the IEL failed to advance any further, a trend the league’s coaches hope to reverse.
In the 5A ranks, that change starts with a trio of dominant regular season teams. Coeur d’Alene, Lake City and Post Falls each finished with 14 or more wins in 2020, with the Vikings and Timberwolves going 5-1 in the conference. However, it was Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, not Lake City, representing the north in the state tournament, with the Trojans surprisingly reaching the consolation championship game before losing to Boise.
Replicating the improbable district tournament run won’t be easy for Post Falls, which lost four seniors from last year’s starting lineup. But if Head Coach Marc Allert has learned anything in his previous 10 seasons with the program, it’s how to develop long-term success.
“I think this year we have some more scoring options at different positions and should be better in transition,” Allert said. “Capri Sims moved up to varsity at the end of the year and played well last year. Several players from JV are ready to make the move up to varsity including Trinidie Nichols, Americus Crane, Ashley Grant and transfer Skilar McLean.”
Those newcomers will be key in keeping Post Falls afloat down the stretch, as Allert noted much of the Inland Empire has reloaded with even more impressive rosters.
“Lake City and Coeur d Alene both return all their key players from last year. Lewiston has some incoming talent and a new coach and should be improved,” he said. “We will be improved as well. Every game will be a battle for us.”
The Vikings were the de facto favorite heading into last year’s state tournament, but back-to-back losses against Treasure Valley squads made for a swift exit. Nevertheless, Head Coach Nicole Symons believes her returning starters have what it takes for an improved playoff run.
With no players lost to graduation, youth might be the Vikings greatest strength. Last year’s co-IEL Player of the Year Madison Symons made a splash in 2020 as just a freshman, with no sign of a sophomore slump in sight.
Despite scoring the most points on average in the league last year, Symons said she feels her offense has yet to reach its full potential.
“At times, we struggle with scoring but our players have put in time this offseason working on shooting and scoring off the bounce,” Symons said.
Lake City, another regular season favorite from a year ago, hopes to rebound after a disappointing finish in the district tournament. After earning a No. 1 seed, the Timberwolves dropped two consecutive games, missing a shot at the state tournament.
But with four returning seniors in Head Coach James Anderson’s arsenal, Lake City looks primed for another top billing in this year’s postseason. Seniors Brooklyn Rewers, Brenna Hawkins, Jaya Miller and Ashlynn Shanley all make a comeback, with Rewers hoping to repeat her co-IEL MVP campaign from 2020.
Down south, the Lewiston Bengals enlisted a local celebrity to help turn the program around. Karlee Wilson, a University of Idaho women's basketball legend, joins the Bengals after coaching the Moscow Bears for the previous two years. Wilson said after a five win season, it’ll be the Wilson way heading into the new year. Junior point guard Emily Collins will be the cornerstone of the rebuilding Bengals.
“Being a first-year coach, it is my goal to get them to buy into my style,” she said.
In the 4A ranks, Moscow hired Alexa Hardick to replace Wilson as head coach. The Bears finished a disappointing 1-15, but juniors Peyton Watson and Angela Lassen hope to inject new vigor on the Palouse.
Sandpoint, the clear leader in last year’s league race, will operate without 2020’s 4A IEL Player of the Year Dawson Driggs, as well as Maddie Morgan, a first-team all-league selection. Head Coach Will Love, entering his third year at the helm, said this year’s seniors will face a much tougher regular season slate because of the league’s new look.
“If we are lucky enough to make it through our league and onto state, we will have a good idea for what to expect at the 4A tournament,” Love said.
Scoring was not the Bulldogs’ strong suite, despite going 17-9 throughout last year. Sandpoint finished just narrowly ahead of Lakeland with 46 points per game, a mark Love said he’d like to see improve.
“Like most teams, we would love to see our shooting percentage increase. We have some goals we are aiming for this season in regard to shooting percentages,” he said. “I think if we can get near those percentages, we will be very competitive.”
The Hawks will look to upend Sandpoint’s goal of another district title. Love said the Hawks return a wealth of talent, including Katy Ryan.
“It all starts with Katy Ryan, who is a walking double-double. She is a heck of an athlete and competitor at 6-foot-5. If she focused on basketball, she would be a high level player,” Love said. “Lakeland will be very competitive and has the opportunity to surprise some 5As during the season.”