Elisa Kooiman didn’t know how difficult her sophomore year would be.
She was the leading scorer on a Lynden girls’ basketball squad that took third at the Hardwood Classic in the 2013-14 season
But Kooiman could no longer just be an incredible offensive talent; she needed to be a leader and she had to do it as a sophomore.
Making the leap from a one-dimensional freshman to a two-way star seemed even more difficult because of the shoes she had to fill.
During Kooiman’s freshman year, Stephanie Somers had been the do-it-all player for coach Rob Adams, who has his Lions back to the Class 2A State Tournament and set to face Black Hills on Saturday, Feb. 28, at Mount Vernon High School in a regional-round game.
“Stephanie Somers was the epitome of a leader,” Adams said in a phone interview. “Steph was a very talented offensive player and able to guard all five players on floor. ... Oftentimes, Steph was expected to carry the load offensively and was required to guard their best player on the defensive end. You have to be a gritty, pretty determined young lady to be able to do that.”
Kooiman had the athleticism and talent to fill that role, but she had to get used to something she had never really been asked to do — play lockdown defense.
“I knew that was something I was going to have to work on,” Kooiman said in a phone interview. “I’ve played a lot of street ball and you don’t really play defense there and in AAU I never really learned the defensive side.”
Despite Kooiman’s undeniable skills on the offensive end of the floor, she could never be respected as a leader, especially by Lynden’s two seniors — Kaitlyn Mark and Mandy Warner — until she improved on the other end.
And it wasn’t a short process for Kooiman.
“Early in the season it was a struggle. Not because she’s selfish but she’s never been asked to play on both sides,” Adams said. “We had to challenge her. ... We had to push her limits and boundaries for her to become more of a complete player.”
After three straight close losses in the middle of the season, all of which the Lions held a lead at some point in the game, it was finally time for Kooiman to fully embrace the role.
The 5-11 sophomore is very competitive and losing those games in the manner Lynden did wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.
“I think it was really tough losing those games. ... It was very frustrating at the time,” Kooiman said. “Growing up with four brothers, I’ve been really competitive my whole life no matter what we’re doing. Our whole team is too and our coach is really competitive too.”
But Adams has a motto for those tough times.
“You’ve got to go through it to grow through it,” Adams said.
Lynden has emerged stronger than ever and the player leading the ship now isn’t in question.
Kooiman’s defense has greatly improved and her teammates recognize her as the leader she set out to be at the beginning of the year.
That acceptance may be hard for most seniors, who might feel like it’s their time to shine, but it wasn’t for Warner and Mark, which “speaks volumes about who they are as individuals,” Adams said.
“I think our two senior leaders have been so great. They were patient throughout the process,” Adams said. “They had the willingness to embrace Elisa in that role. ... They knew she needed to do that; it was just a matter of going through it.”
Now, when it comes down to crunch time, there’s no denying who the go-to player is on the Lions, and Kooiman is more than comfortable with the role.
“I love to be the go-to player,” Kooiman said. “That’s just the way I am.”
And the Lions have a second consecutive district title in large part because of what Kooiman’s been able to do on the court. She scored 73 points in three district games but also helped Lynden fend off Blaine in overtime and Archbishop Murphy by two points.
Both those games would have been losses three weeks ago, Adams said.
While Lynden is cruising into the state tournament, Adams and his coaching staff are making sure Kooiman doesn’t forget what it took for her to get to this point.
“It’s a maturation process. A lot of great players have to go through it,” Adams said. “You have to go from kind of wanting to play well when you want to play well to having to understand the expectation and price you have to pay having to play well all the time. It can’t be a choice thing. It has to be an expectation thing.
“When you’re younger, you struggle with that. When you’re younger you can pick and choose when to take over a game. To be a true leader you have to embrace the role of having to bring forth effort in everything you do.”
There’s no doubting Kooiman has reached that point. She is Lynden’s true leader and she’s going to leave it all on the court as the Lions try to get back to the Hardwood Classic.