Totems turning a corner | Prep sports feature

Nitsumi Naito (left) and Min Yang have helped the Totems build a foundation for the future.  - Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter
Nitsumi Naito (left) and Min Yang have helped the Totems build a foundation for the future.
— image credit: Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter

Loren Tillman remembers the exact moment his program turned a corner.

The head coach for a Sammamish girls basketball team that had not won a conference game since the 2004-05 season, Tillman had completed his first year on the sidelines for the Totems in 2011-12 and was heading to an offseason conditioning workout with a headache and not much in the way of expectations.

"It was supposed to be twice a week and that first day, I wasn't feeling very well," Tillman recalled. "I didn't think we would even have anyone show up, so I was wondering why I was even bothering."

But when he arrived at the Sammamish weight room, what he found came as a pleasant surprise. Players were on-hand ready to participate in the workout, waiting for their coach to give them the next instruction.

"Right away, that changed my feeling, the headache was gone, I felt so much better," Tillman said. "They were at the door waiting for me, asking me why I was late."

The first season under their new coach was much like the several the preceded it: without any KingCo wins and always a struggle. But after a year that saw the Totems drop in-conference deficits from as many as 80 points to within reason, players and coaches knew there could be more on the horizon as the 2012-13 season dawned.

Sammamish went through four head coaches in four years from 2006-2009, winning five games combined in those seasons. Tillman won only three games in 2011-12, including two over Forest Ridge, a 1A all-girls school in Bellevue.

But when he and the Totems topped rival Interlake in overtime earlier this season, their commitment was rewarded.

Senior Nitsumi Naito, the only member of this year's squad that has spent four years in the program, said her own growth has mirrored that of the team in many ways. Her freshman season was a learning experience, while the following year was riddled with communication issues and a general lack of team continuity. Naito herself arrived at Sammamish unable to speak English and said that issue often underscored the frustrations on the court.

"I had a hard time with teammates because I couldn't have a conversation with them," she said. "There was some conflict."

As her own comfort level with teammates and coaches grew, Naito emerged as one of the top offensive threats for the Totems, averaging more than 12 points per game. She said Tillman has created a cohesion within the program and a confidence in his players.

After arriving to a group that sometimes needed instruction on which areas of the floor were out-of-bounds or where a free throw is shot from, Tillman now has confidence the win over Interlake will not be the only one his team earns within the conference this year. While Lake Washington has already clinched the one 2A playoff spot that it competes with the Totems for in KingCo, the postseason will serve as an even larger goal in years to come.

In addition, Tillman has introduced film study and continues to push the off-season workout program to a group that he said is hungry for much more.

"We have come so far from last year," Tillman said. "It was a great feeling to get that one league win and I believe we can get more."

While Naito and fellow senior Min Yang won't be around for any postseason run beyond this year, the rivalry win over the Saints and looming season-finale rematch are plenty of reenforcement for a career that has been anything but easy.

"I had so many hard times, it was awesome," Naito said of her first KingCo win. "I feel like I waited three years for that."


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