East Lansing and Waverly, two of the strongest high school girls basketball programs in the area, have made playing each other to start the season something of a tradition.
And in recent years, the Warriors have made ending their season against the Trojans something of a tradition as well.
Since winning the Class A state championship in 2004, Waverly has faced East Lansing five times in the postseason, and the Trojans have prevailed in all five — including last year’s 57-53 win in the district final over the second-ranked Warriors.
East Lansing coach Rob Smith said that the seeds of the district title were sown in last year’s season opener, a 57-51 Waverly win.
“Last year we got beat by Waverly, and that’s all we talked about all year long, meeting up with them again in the districts,” Smith said. “There will be some first-game jitters. But after the first couple of minutes, you hope that goes away and you get down to playing East Lansing basketball.”
When the two teams meet tonight at Waverly, it will be a clash between the new and the familiar. East Lansing returns a team that is deep, experienced and battle-tested. After winning that district title, the Trojans also won the regional title before falling in double overtime in the Class A quarterfinals to eventual state champion Grand Haven.
Four of the starters from that playoff run are back this season, including junior guard Meechi Thompson. Thompson, who led the Trojans in scoring in the postseason, had 19 points in the district final win over Waverly and 21 against Grand Haven.
On the other side of the court, the game will be the first for Waverly’s new coach, Dan Carr, in his first varsity head coaching job. Smith said that this may present problems for his team.
“We have no idea what to expect,” he said. “We’re going to have to make adjustments on the fly based on what they’re doing, and that will be key early on.”
But the element of surprise might not be that significant a factor. Carr teaches Spanish at Waverly and has been a longtime varsity assistant for the Warrior boys team. So he is not totally unfamiliar with his charges, but he said that he is still learning what his team can do.
“We have players who are being asked to step into new roles this year, so it’s kind of feeling-out process,” Carr said. “I have a great group of girls, and a lot of them have invested a lot of time in the off-season getting better individually.”
Waverly returns just one player from last year’s starting rotation who will play tonight, but it’s the reigning Lansing State Journal Player of the Year — senior guard Victoria Milton. Milton will start the game with four new teammates, because the Warriors’ only other returning starter, sophomore forward Breanna Mobely, will sit out with a foot injury.
While East Lansing will have more players from last year’s district upset on the floor tonight, Carr said that the history between the two programs is still in the front of his players’ minds, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“With the rivalry, it’s easy get caught up in the hype of a single game,” he said. “The reality is, it’s a non-conference game against a great program that is going to challenge us and make us better no matter what happens. It certainly isn’t just another game, but I want the girls to know the significance of one game in a three-month season.”