The Lynden Christian girls' basketball team needed to replace two starters from last year's state roster.
Junior guard Sally Vlas was an easy choice.
"She takes her defensive focus and energy to the next level," LC coach Curt De Haan said in a phone interview. "She rebounds extremely well for a guard, and she fits right into that style of get-up-and-down the floor. "
In other words, Vlas embodies the ideals of an LC varsity girls' basketball player - tenacious defender, team-first attitude player with the ability to score or share the basketball.
Vlas will put those abilities on display when the Lyncs face Brewster in the Class 1A State Tournament quarterfinals at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at Yakima's SunDome.
Vlas has proved to be an invaluable asset for De Haan's Lyncs. Whether it be the two key steals she made late to help LC beat fellow state-qualifying team King's during the Lyncs' home opener or Vlas' season-high 17 points she scored against Cascade Christian to hand the Cougars their only loss of the season during the tri-district championship game, the 5-foot-4 man-to-man lock-down defender has made the most of her chance to start.
Vlas admits she's improved since last year when she was used sparingly off the bench but, interestingly, she doesn't know the source of her improvement, just that "something clicked."
"The beginning of the season I came into basketball and just wanted to play," Vlas said. "I didn't have my sights set on a championship, but as the team got better I got this huge want to win. I just turned up the heat and decided if we are going to play, we may as well win."
Basketball isn't Vlas' only sport. She plays soccer and track and field, too. Between the three, Vlas said last year "basketball was just another sport."
She's developed an entirely different attitude now.
"I haven't been able to focus in school," Vlas said. "All I can think about is the Brewster game. I didn't realize how much I like basketball last year. I'm really excited this year, because I get the chance to start at state."
Vlas gives credit to her teammates for her improvements and points to a specific moment that gave her a major confidence boost.
"I don't know what happened to me. I don't want to (talk myself up), but I guess I got good," Vlas said. "It was just my team. Kayla Tiemersma looked me in the eye against Nooksack Valley and said, 'Sally, I believe in you.' That meant so much to me to know my team believed in me. It made me want to step up."
Her scoring average increased by more than four points per game this year, but De Haan believes Vlas' biggest asset is the energy and determination she brings to the game. Teammates feed off it.
"She's always had that get-after-it mentality," the LC coach said. "She's really put the whole package together and has turned into a strong player for us on both ends of the court. Her energy has been a key component as far as leadership goes for younger players."
De Haan spoke glowingly about the passion Vlas exudes not only in games but at practices.
Vlas said she wants to be that player the rest of her team can rally around and can count on to make a big impact, difference-making play.
"Basketball is such a time-consuming thing," Vlas said. "I decided if I'm going to spend this much time, I may as well be passionate about it. If there is only one play that sets the tone, and I can be in it, and it can get the rest of the team pumped."
Vlas also fits the Lyncs' unselfish, well-balanced attack.
Last year Jasmine Hommes, who's now playing at Montana State University, was the focal point of every team's game plan. Anytime the Lyncs needed a bucket, they could turn to the all-state standout.
Lynden Christian this year has a number of players capable of scoring and uses them all. Tiemersma, Courtney Hollander, Karley De Jager, Kassidy Aldrich, Kara Bajema and Vlas all average over five points per game.
"She is your ideal type of team player, and she is going to get the job done," De Haan said.
The junior guard will have extra motivation this year at the SunDome. Even though her role last year was limited, she remembers the sting of LC's state semifinal loss to Freeman. Led by Hommes, it seemed the Lyncs were destined to at least play for a 2012 state title, but Lynden Christian lost to Freeman 37-36 one game short of playing for a championship.
The loss hit Vlas and the team hard.
"Even though I didn't get any playing time, I still cried in the locker room," Vlas said. "I'm kind of a sympathetic crier, and it was emotional. It was Jasmine's last year, and we all thought we could do it."
This year LC will be trying to send off Tiemersma - the Lyncs lone senior - with a state title.
It's plausible, but it won't be easy.
Coming off a 72-11 blowout win against Hoquiam in the state regionals, LC has to quickly turn its attention to Caribou Trail League champion Brewster. The Bears are one of three CTL teams to qualify for the Hardwood Classic's round of eight.
"We are all really excited and all nervous, which I think is really normal," Vlas said. "We play one of the toughest teams in the state, and I think it's good we've had those (past) games as confidence boosters. Our coaches always talk about climbing the ladder every single game and every practice. As a team, we embrace that."
It's shown. The Lyncs have improved all season, especially on defense. LC is giving up only 23.5 points per game during its six postseason contests, which should make for an interesting match up against Brewster. The Bears have four girls scoring in double figures, including 6-foot junior guard Chandler Smith, who's averaging 20.9 points per game and is widely touted as a future Division I player.
"It's going to be a tough game, but if we can pull together and play as a team, we can get the job done," Vlas said.
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at firstname.lastname@example.org or call ext. 862.