Mat Sand had one last chance to coach the state champion Baker girls basketball team and the Bulldogs, though they were wearing dresses and skirts rather than sweat-soaked jerseys, didn’t disappoint.
The group of young women gathered Tuesday night on the polished wood floor of the BHS gym, the site of eight of their 25 wins during a historic, record-setting season.
Family and friends sat in the bleachers, bursting into applause regularly.
But on this night the state champions didn’t pass or dribble or shoot.
Instead they slipped onto their fingers glossy rings commemorating their achievement, one last gift from a community that has supported m any of these players since they were little girls tossing the ball toward the hoops in gyms around town.
“It means so much to me and the whole team,” said Rose Gwillim, one of the team’s three seniors, after the hour-long ceremony that brought about 75 people to the BHS gym.
“That’s what makes this thing so special to us. We play for our whole community. They do so much for us. It’s just awesome.”
But before Gwillim and her teammates received their rings, Sand gave them one final test to see what they retained from the dozens of hours of time they spent together, working toward the ultimate goal that ended with a 51-48 win over Marist in the state championship game on March 9.
As Sand talked about the team’s magical season he told the audience the two basketball terms he had repeated endlessly — “rebounds and free throws.”
And then he turned to his players, who were seated in purple and gold Baker Bulldog chairs arrayed in a semicircle near midcourt, and asked them to explain what those two basketball skills do.
They immediately responded in unison — albeit with a few raised eyebrows indicating just how often they had heard this particular mantra.
“See, they were listening,” he said.
And that, the fourth-year coach said, epitomizes this group.
“I can’t say enough about this team and how they bought into the philosophy, the teaching,” Sand said. “This team is off the charts from any team I’ve coached in basketball IQ.”
Before handing out the rings to each player individually, Sand had one more piece of instruction, although it was really more of an order.
“You cannot look at your ring until everybody has one,” he said.
Sand spoke about each player in turn, highlighting each of their unique contributions to what became Baker’s first girls state championship basketball team.
He talked about Sydney Keller’s tenacity and Lauren Benson’s selflessness and Sydney Younger’s growing confidence and Averi Elms’ heart.
Sand reminisced about what he’ll miss from the team’s three seniors — Alayna Calaway, Jayme Ramos and Gwillim — and he talked about how excited he is to coach the returning players again next season.
In summarizing Gwillim’s statistical prowess — she scored 549 points and snared 240 rebounds in her career — Sand lamented that she arrived in Baker City only in time to play two seasons.
“I wish I had her for more than two years, but the two years were great,” he said. “The most amazing thing about Rose is her personality. She always has fun, and she’s a fierce competitor.”
Sand introduced Ramos last, calling it a “sentimental moment for me.”
Ramos is the only player Sand has coached every year at BHS.
“I couldn’t ask for a better representation of what I was trying to teach,” he said of Ramos, who scored 1,024 points during her career.
He said Ramos epitomized everything he expected from his players, “on the court and in the classroom.”
Sand also introduced and awarded rings to assistant coaches Amy Younger, Jason Ramos and Shawn Berry, and he thanked others who had coached the players in middle school and earlier, as well as their parents.
“I want to thank our community for being such a great supporter for our program, and our great student body,” Sand said.
When he had distributed the last ring he told the players to open their boxes.
Each ring has a No. 1, “4A State Champions,” “Baker” the team’s season record of 25-1, and the player’s last name.
Sand also urged the players to look at the single word inscribed inside each ring.
That word, he said, is one the team chose at the start of the year to define what they hoped to achieve.
The word is “unity.”
“I believe we did a great job,” he said.
Sand also recognized Rocky Brown, who helped organize the fundraising campaign that paid for 18 rings, each of which cost $250.
See more in the May 22, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.