Ryley Zapien was put in a tough position.
In her freshman season for Meridian’s girls’ basketball team, Zapien not only handled significant play time, but she had to do it from the point guard position.
“There was a huge load on her shoulders,” Meridian coach Mark Gilmore said in a phone interview. “We didn’t have a lot of ballhandlers. She worked really hard. She had to take a lot of the load. Everyone wanted to press us.”
The bumps in the road came as they do for any freshman point guard, and the result was a 4-18 season for Meridian —another in a long list of poor seasons for the Trojans.
Zapien had her successes , though, and as the freshman matured, the speed bumps became fewer and farther between.
“She handled it really well and grew up a lot,” Gilmore said. “It was just a lot for a freshman to take that on.”
The trial by fire worked for Zapien and the 2014-15 season brought the emergence of a fresh young talent in the Northwest Conference.
As of Thursday, Jan. 8, Zapien was the seventh-highest scorer in Whatcom County, averaging 13.6 points per game through the Trojans’ first 10 games while still holding the majority of ballhandling duties. Meridian (8-4, 3-1 NWC), as a result, already has won more games than the past two years combined.
“Sometimes being a freshman would get to her. She’s really more consistent this year,” Gilmore said. “She’s a great floor leader, works hard on defense. She’s just really a great kid to have on the squad.”
Because of her point guard duties and scoring ability, Zapien has become the de facto leader of a young Trojans’ squad that only has two seniors and six freshmen.
The sophomore isn’t the most vocal nor the eldest player on the team, but she’s inherited the role for a reason and Gilmore believes it’s the way she works at the game.
“It’s huge having six freshmen on varsity for those girls to come in and see her work ethic and her attitude. As a coach you couldn’t ask for anything more,” Gilmore said. “They like her. They want to play like her.”
Who wouldn’t want to play like her? The shifty guard can weave in and out of any lane or in between any defenders while still avoiding the block and she enjoys doing it.
“When I’m driving in, it just makes me feel good,” Zapien said in a phone interview. “You’re going so fast, weaving in and out. You see passing lanes. Everyone’s hands are up high and you go low with bounce passes.”
With a slight build and standing only 5-foot-8, the things Zapien is doing are certainly praiseworthy, Gilmore said.
“She has all the weapons. Her strength is she can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim,” Gilmore said. “She can go between bodies and get to the rim without getting shots blocked and can still see teammates and dish it off. She doesn’t make mistakes on her way to the hoop.
“She’s a good shooter from the perimeter and is just getting better. When she doesn’t have the ball, she works to get open. She likes to catch on the run, move and continue to get to the rim and get inside the paint.”
Zapien wasn’t always a scorer, though, and despite her playing point guard, her coaches had to tell her to stop passing.
“When I was younger, I passed a lot. That was my strong suit,” Zapien said. “As I got older, my coaches would tell me ‘You got to take it sometimes.’ I try to find a happy medium.”
The Trojans certainly are glad she’s found that middle ground, as she continues to wow crowds around the league.
It’s her defense that may be the most valuable however. One of Zapien’s biggest strengths, according to Zapien and Gilmore, is her ability to anticipate and pick up steals.
With an all-around player like Zapien, the Trojans’ future is bright but Zapien knows to put the work before the outcome.
“It will be an uphill battle,” Zapien said. “We keep getting better each year, every practice. I feel like it’s going to be a good next couple years.”
For now, the Trojans, at 3-1 in conference, have a realistic chance of making the playoffs and after several years of losing, that’s a big step in the right direction for Meridian girls’ basketball.