Pinewood girls basketball pulled off the national upset of 2015-16 thanks to deadly distance shooting — and much more.
Story by CLAY KALLAM | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
Two teams, both from the Bay Area. They both shoot more 3s than anyone. They both win championships — well, one of them has won only one while the other has won six.
Which is one reason Pinewood’s Doc Scheppler has this to say: “We don’t play like the Warriors — the Warriors play like us. We’ve been playing like this for 20 years.”
And though “playing like this” didn’t win the Los Altos Hills school its seventh CIF State Championship this past winter, it did propel the 3-point shooting Panthers to the biggest upset of the season — and maybe several seasons — when they knocked off unbeaten and national-No. 1 St. Mary’s-Stockton 72-69 in the NorCal Open Division semifinals last March. Pinewood hit 16 of 32 shots from behind the arc in that game, and overcame a 10-point third-quarter deficit. But as Scheppler and his players are quick to point out, Pinewood is much more than just a 3-point shooting machine.
“We want to dominate on all levels,” says senior Erin Pondexter-McHan, “not just shooting.”
And despite being undersized — both in height and school population (about 220) — the Panthers do just that.
“Everyone on our team can handle the ball,” says senior Mikaela Topper. “At all times, we have five players on the court who can handle the ball.”
Kelly Sopak, the coach of a notorious pressing team at Miramonte-Orinda, echoes that assessment. “We learned that we just can’t press Pinewood like we can other teams,” he says. “They excel in the open floor and the press seems to make their spacing even better. And there’s nothing a shooting team likes more than space and skip passes.“
Of course, Miramonte is another reason that Pinewood is like the Warriors — er, the Warriors are like Pinewood. After Golden State pulled off the miracle 3-1 comeback against Oklahoma City, they stumbled against the next opponent, and the same happened to Pinewood. After stunning St. Mary’s, there just wasn’t enough in the tank for the team to win its ninth NorCal title; Miramonte ended their season with a 73-40 thumping.
Note, however, that both of those games were in the Open Div., not where Pinewood would be if enrollment was the only criterion. The Panthers instead would have been in Div. V, and there’s no doubt they would have been heavy favorites to not only win the NorCal championship, but the state title as well.
Even so, look for Pinewood to be back in the Open next year — and Pondexter-McHan, for one, can’t wait. Only Chloe Eackles graduated from last year’s team, which generates this kind of optimism: “My personal goal is to get back to the state championship in the Open.”
And though Pinewood is much more than just a 3-point bomb squad, there’s no doubt that the long-range salvos are a big part of the team’s arsenal.
“This is the way a team that doesn’t have a lot of talent can compete against more talented teams,” says Scheppler – but he’s also quick to point out a key difference between just launching from beyond the arc and Pinewood’s offense.
“We don’t just shoot a lot of 3s,” he says, “we shoot a lot of wide-open 3s.”
And they make a lot, in great part due to Scheppler’s coaching.
“All I did as a kid in my free hours was shoot in the driveway,” he says. Scheppler not only coaches Pinewood, he works extensively with individuals — most notably Jeremy Lin, now of the Brooklyn Nets. Lin graduated from Palo Alto and went to Harvard, but was struggling to find a place in the NBA when he started working with Scheppler. A revamped shot led to more confidence, and Lin burst onto the scene with the New York Knicks before also playing with Houston, the Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte.
“Doc completely fixed my shot,” says senior Akayla Hackson. “It was awful before.”
“When I came to Pinewood,” says Pondexter-McHan, “I wasn’t a shooter but it took one one-hour lesson to get the basics.”
Of course, the instruction never ends.
“Every day in practice, he tweaks things,” says Topper – but that tweaking goes beyond shot mechanics.
“I’ve learned how to get better,” Scheppler says of his own coaching. “I want to be great, but if I want to be great, I have to get better.”
One adjustment he’s made over the years came when he realized opponents were just running Pinewood off the 3-point line and making his smaller players go to the basket.
“One thing I learned to do is to work really hard on finishes at the rim,” he says. “We’ve mastered the floater,” in part because he’s spent a lot of time learning how to teach it.
And as Sopak noted, the Panthers handle pressure as well as anyone, and that too is something Scheppler has focused on.
“It’s about teaching kids to make basketball plays,” says Scheppler, “rather than teaching kids to run basketball plays.”
Still, though, Pinewood’s system is based on the ability to generate wide-open 3s, and then knock them down.
“We don’t step into the shot,” says Scheppler, “we hop. We catch the ball in the air, then hop. All we have to do is hop and release the ball within 0.5 seconds.”
Of course it’s a lot more complicated than that. All shooting starts with footwork, and that was the tweak for Pondexter-McHan. “With some people, he wants to fix their arc and how they flick their wrist,” she says, “but I was very bad with my feet.
“At first, I thought it was awkward, but by next practice, I was so much quicker.”
“We all want to have the perfect shot,” says Hackson, but at the same time Scheppler and his players realize that shooting is like the weather – it comes and goes.
“You can’t be a really good team with just shooters,” admitted Pondexter-McHan, and like the team across the Bay, they’ve learned the hard way that you can’t rely on making 16 threes every time out. “We have to focus on the little things our team needs to do to win.”
Scheppler does just that in practice, working his players on handling traps, looking for offensive rebounds and understanding the game. The past results speak for themselves, but today’s Pinewood players want to create their own legacy.
“We’re only losing one player,” says Hackson, “and a lot of other teams lose more. We’re a year better and we’re maturing.”
But Pinewood does have a big challenge not that far down the road, as Archbishop Mitty-San Jose brings back a lot of talent as well — but a hot night from beyond the arc can be the great equalizer, as St. Mary’s learned last year.
“I don’t mind having that reputation,” says Topper, “but we’re definitely more than that.”
“We’re all looking forward to this year so much,” she adds. “The possibilities are endless, and there’s a lot of determination.”
And of course, there will be a lot of 3s as well.