On paper, the Pinewood Panthers don’t pass the eye test.
“We’re not going to win any awards walking through an airport,” longtime coach Doc Scheppler says. “We’re not an imposing type team.”
With decisive wins over Lahainaluna and ‘Iolani, the No. 4 and No. 1 teams in Hawaii, respectively, the Panthers from Los Altos Hills, Calif. are in the championship game of the ‘Iolani Prep Classic tonight against Incarnate Word Academy (Mo.).
The website for the town of Los Altos Hills, population 8,580, calls it “a premier Silicon Valley residential community located near the City of Los Altos in Santa Clara County, CA, and recognized for their Pathway System.”
Scheppler is part roundball scientist, part Santa Claus, and certainly no Scrooge. Even with all the work and all the travel, the longtime coach is all for some R&R. They’ve spent plenty of time at the beach, including an hour or so on Friday, and a little more at the malls.
They have their resume. MaxPreps calls Pinewood — enrollment of roughly 595 students in grades K-12, tuition $28,160 — a “giant killer” for good reason. The Panthers have upset two national No. 1 teams in the past three years. They beat Archbishop Mitty in the CIF’s Northern California Open Division final, 78-67 in three overtimes last March.
And yet, MaxPreps predicted that Incarnate Word simply has too much talent and will go 3-0 in the tourney. Pinewood has its believers, the dozen or so family and friends who arrived with the team on Tuesday night.
The Panthers do more than play a sport. They are a living embodiment of what Scheppler has studied for many of his waking hours on earth. With a roster almost entirely of players who range from 5 feet, 3 inches, to 5-9, they have mastered the art of warp-speed basketball, long-range resourcefulness and, ultimately, technical efficiency.
There are exceptions on the roster. Hannah Jump, at 5-11, is a giant among her peers. The Stanford-bound senior won the 3-point shooting contest at the tourney, but showed her prowess at attacking the rim on Friday when semifinal opponent ‘Iolani refused to give her an open look from the arc. She poured in 17 of her 20 points in the first half as the Panthers prowled and dominated in the first half.
Scheppler’s player all shoot the same way, using a pre-catch dip and square-up with both feet — what one referee described as a legal “jump stop” when Lahainaluna coach Todd Rickard asked about it on Thursday — and then catching and releasing the ball on the spring-action upward. It’s an uncanny thing to watch for fans of shooting technique. Scheppler’s players, he says, average between 0.5 and 0.6 seconds of actual possession time touching the ball with this technique.
Jump and teammate Kiara Astrom say it’s even lower. Astrom shot 5-for-9 from the arc in the first half against ‘Iolani and finished with 20 points.
“It’s about 0.4 seconds for us,” Jump said.
Astrom made the transition to Pinewood’s shooting technique when she arrived in freshman year. It’s the transformation that Scheppler expects from all the Panthers. He compared the numbers to a 100-yard sprint. At a world-class 10 seconds, that equates to one-tenth of a second for 10 yards, or 30 feet. Shaving a shooter’s release time by .1 or even .2 of a second can make the shot impossible to contest.
Above all, however, the Panthers are practical.
“We really value shot selection, so we’re not going to jack up 3s if they’re not there,” Jump said.
Balance, spacing, IQ. Sophomore Courtni Thompson hit two big shots in the first quarter, including a 3. Her classmate, Annika Decker, is the spark that makes the fastbreak go. She finished with six points and eight assists.
Coach Scheppler is likes routine. Repetition. Layups and 3s.
“If we get our looks, we’re going to be just fine. We were able to get to the rim and finish plays, and we got our 3s. We got our shots. Hannah had her best game of the year. She’d been struggling with her shot, but when teams play us a specific way, it forces our point guards to be able to finish plays. When everyone’s treat the same, Hannah’s going to get 10 looks at 3,” he said. “You saw a clinic tonight. This was a classic Pinewood game.”
Most coaches who don’t use this technique would probably instruct their shooters to slow down. But the entire roster works diligently, moves efficiently, and when the shot isn’t there, there’s always the drive-and-kick action. ‘Iolani helped out on the drive just about every time, which is how Pinewood got 15 open 3-pointers in the first half. They hit nine. Many of those were on the drive-and-kick reversals that had defenders chasing ghosts.
It’s normally what ‘Iolani, the No. 1 team in the Star-Advertiser Girls Basketball Top 10, does to all other opponents in the islands.
Astrom and Jump say it’s all about teamwork and repetition. As in 400 to 500 shots every day in the offseason, and in-season.
“We probably get up between, like, 400 to 500 shots every day at practice,” said Astrom, who will suit up at Yale next season.
There’s also a lot of conditioning. Their home court is actually shorter than the one at ‘Iolani.
“It’s a pretty long court (here),” Astrom said.
“We get conditioning from playing basically all year long,” Jump added. “We’re all playing club basketball and open gym three times a week.”
After a so-so shooting performance in a comfortable win over Lahainaluna on Thursday, jet lag be darned, the Panthers shot 9-for-15 from 3-point range in the first half against ‘Iolani. They also committed just two turnovers in the first two quarters. Coach Scheppler played his reserves heavily in the second half, when Pinewood shot a pedestrian 2-for-15 from the arc.
“The thing we’re not known for is our defense,” Scheppler said after the win over Lahainaluna. “We play straight man with principles based on the strengths of the other team. That’s the foundation right there. It is a pack line, but we want to make sure we’re pressuring the ball tight.”
It’s proof that this is not a team of robots. They’re the kind of team that would seem completely outmatched, outsized and out of luck against a team like Incarnate Word, which has three Division I college recruits: PG Marissa Warren (DePaul), 6-4 center Rickie Woltman (Purdue) and 5-11 forward Kiki Britzmann (Belmont).
Or maybe MaxPreps is wrong. Maybe it’s the USA Today that’s right. Pinewood is ranked No. 12 in the USA Today Super 25, while Incarnate Word is unranked.
“We love being the underdogs,” said Astrom, who’s also a rugged rebounder at 5-9. “As soon as we start hitting 3s or hitting layups and getting turnovers, we just go off. It doesn’t matter that we come on the court and everyone’s thinking, ‘They’re going to get destroyed right now.’ “
Jump, at 5-11, is the tallest starter — there are two 6-foot freshman reserves who play light minutes — and is a shooting guard in this system.
“We love not having that pressure,” she said. “People don’t see us as a dominant team, but when we step out on the court we know that we have the ability to win.”