Sammamish coach Wes Newton saw a lot of himself in John Steinberg early on.
He saw a kid who was a hard-worker, so much so that he had to be talked out of going to the weight room or the gym. He saw a kid with talent. He saw a kid so passionate about the game of basketball, it sometimes hurt him on the court.
For all the work in the weight room or on the court, the toughest skill for the 6-foot-4 junior to master wasn’t fixed by an extra rep or additional shots.
It was controlling his emotions.
“I was the same way as a player,” Newton said. “When he was younger, you could tell real quick when he was mad and we’ve had to work on that quite a bit. I taught him from my experiences…no matter how you’re feeling, don’t let the other team see it.”
It’s more smiles than frowns these days for the now even-keeled Steinberg, a second team All-KingCo selection a year ago who averaged 11.8 points per game. Thanks to the work Steinberg put in under Newton, he’s now ready to answer the call of leadership.
“I’m just so passionate about basketball and Wes would tell me that he was the same way as me when he played, really amped up and anxious,” said Steinberg, a 4.0 student being recruited by several Ivy League schools. “He taught me how to learn to communicate with my teammates and I’ve been learning how to do it. It’s been a challenge. It’s actually a really hard skill to learn.”
Hard, but valuable. Because now it’s up to Steinberg and his junior classmates to lead a Totems team that graduated four talented seniors from last year’s squad that went 16-11 and finished a game away from the state tournament. Gone are Daniel Wruble, Anthony Do, Brady Anderson and Duncan Dickerson, key cogs to Sammamish’s revival of the last few seasons. The quartet combined to score 633 points last year.
“That was a good group, my first class so they came in with me and completely bought into everything we were preaching,” Newton said. “I can see some of those traits in some of these young guys, and that’s a good sign.”
Luckily Newton’s team returns plenty of experience, as Steinberg, George Valle, Jacob West and Sami Jarjour all played big roles a season ago. Each of the four scored over 100 points last year. Add in returners Dakota Olsen (who will be out at least a month with shingles) and Steve Perkins and it’s easy to see why the Totems have started the season 5-1.
“Our class has been plying together for a long time,” said Valle, who was last season’s third-leading scorer with 10.7 points per game. “We are stepping up – it’s on us this year.”
Valle, who leads the team with 15 points per game this year, will play a big role, as he’ll transition to the point after playing the majority of his basketball days down low. He’s improving each day, Newton said, and was a big reason the Totems were able to overcome a 14-point halftime deficit in Sammamish’s 63-59 win over Bothell last week. The junior scored 23 points and had three assists and three rebounds in the win.
“He’s not the quickest, he’s not the strongest, but the kid knows the game inside and out,” Newton said. “We want our point guards to have a high IQ and understand the game. In most traditional systems he’s probably not a point guard, but our whole system is unconventional, so he’s a perfect fit there.”
Each junior has a specific role in the system. With Jarjour, Newton said, they’ll get high-risk, high-reward – the knowledge he’ll take some bad shots, but with the game on the line, he’s not afraid to shot. West, at 6-foot, 235-pounds, doesn’t look like your typical three-point threat, but that’s exactly what he does. In fact, the junior broke Sammamish’s school record for three-pointers on Tuesday night, hitting 11 and scoring 35 points to lead the Totems to a 89-64 win over No.4 Lake Washington.
“Jacob might hit seven three’s in a row on you and not even crack a smile; he might miss all seven and he isn’t going to even blink,” Newton said. “He’s so chill. He is what he is, he knows his role and sticks to it.”
But the team is still a work in progress, as the Bothell game was a perfect example of a squad still trying to figure itself out, Newton said. The team played lethargic in the first half, so Newton told the team he wanted to see some energy in the second – or the following Monday’s practice would be the hardest any of them had ever seen, with lots and lots of running.
“That threat helped us, but coach does a really good job motivating us anyway,” Valle said. “We fight until the end. We never quit.”
With a difficult road to state in front of them – Newton is the first to say how competitive the district is with teams like Bellevue, Mercer Island, Franklin, Rainier Beach and O’Dea on the horizon – the team will need players like Steinberg and Valle to continue to bring the group together.
Fortunately, they say they’re up to the task.
“I just want to say, we’re a dangerous team and people should respect us, you know?” Steinberg said. “In past years, we’ve been at the lower end of KingCo, but we can really do some damage. People should not think we’re an automatic win.”
Joel Willits can be reached at 425-453-5045.