With just three upperclassmen on the roster to start the 2012-13 season, the Westbrook-Walnut Grove girls' basketball team knew it would take its lumps as the new faces adjusted to the varsity level. And it did, dropping four of its first five games. The slide to start the season could have been worse, but one player in particular emerged to lead the Chargers on the court and aided the team's recovery to a 6-9 overall record (5-5 Red Rock Conference).
Paige Erickson was the lone returning all-conference honoree for the Chargers this season. As a senior, she is also one of the three elder statesmen of the youthful WWG squad, and, according to head coach Sheryl Woelber, a primary reason for the quick acclimation of her younger teammates to the varsity game.
"I think any time that you graduate seniors it changes the dynamic of your team, and she's stepped up and become a great leader," Woelber said of Erickson. "She was our high scorer last year as well, but this year she's had to take on more responsibilities because we are so young. She's done a great job, she's just been a great leader for us."
It's a leadership role that Erickson has whole-heartedly embraced.
"It's been a lot of fun to play with the younger girls; it's been a lot of fun to be the leader, to know that you always have to do your best because they're all looking up to you," Erickson said. "I think they sort of just watch, and not that I tell them what to do, but they just kind of listen to me, I think because I'm older. I think they respect me, so it's fun, it's fun to play with them."
Having played in 14 of the Chargers' 15 games so far this season, Erickson has emerged as one of the area's dominant forces on the low post. As of Jan. 20, her 21.2 points per game led the area, as did her 12 rebounds per game. Erickson also ranks highly in assists (45), steals (46), blocks (15) and free throws (65-80). Her 81.3 percent rating from the foul line is second best among qualified competitors in the area.
The high-water mark on the season came Jan. 11 as Erickson scored 33 points and hauled in 15 rebounds in a 75-67 overtime loss to Fulda. Though the Chargers lost, those 33 points allowed Erickson to reach a career milestone, as she scored her 1,000th career point at the free throw line to send the game to overtime.
"It was really exciting because we haven't been able to be that close with Fulda in years," Erickson said. "The whole time that I've played, I've never been that close with Fulda. It was even more exciting that I got my 1,000th point because it got us all pumped up. But then we had some people foul out and the game got away from us, but it was really exciting. I don't think I'll ever feel that again, that feeling."
At 5-foot-8, Erickson is neither the tallest post player in the area nor on her own team. But though she may lack astounding size, Erickson makes up for it with a laundry list of intangibles.
"She anticipates very well underneath the basket," Woelber said. "She's a good ball handler, you know, she has some good size. She's quick and she just loves playing basketball, that's what it comes down to. She's after every rebound and it's not very often that she takes a break out on the court."
For Erickson, the key to developing a knack for the game goes hand in hand with a love for basketball.
"I think it just kind of comes," Erickson said. "I enjoy playing so much so I just try to do whatever I can to get our team to win. I try my hardest all the time."
With just six regular season games remaining, it is the above list of intangibles that Woelber hopes is absorbed by the younger members of her team before Erickson's playing days with the Chargers come to an end.
"It's a definite asset to our team," Woelber said of Erickson. "She's helping those younger girls come along. It's not very often that people get to play with a great player like she is, so when she comes out of the game it's an adjustment. But that's something that they'll have to get used to as well."