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Kyle Matsumura, Kyle Matsumura
Rowland Hall's Marisa Eng takes a shot in a recent game for the Winged Lion in front of what's become a deeper team bench.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's no longer an anomaly to see freshmen in the starting lineup of a high school basketball game.

But it's definitely a rare moment when that freshman has only played basketball for a few weeks.

Noelani Blueford thought it might be fun to learn a new sport her freshman year, so she tried out for Rowland Hall-St. Mark's basketball team. What she didn't know is that she was just one of five girls who showed up for the 2A school's tryouts that season.

"I'd never tried playing it before, and it was kind of a shock going out and playing varsity basketball," said Blueford, now a senior for the Winged Lions. "It was really crazy."

What's almost as impressive as Blueford's ability to take a leadership role with no basketball experience four years ago is the way the Winged Lions' program has both grown and improved during her career. The team jumped out to a 6-0 start this season and looks to be more competitive than it has been in five or six years.

When head coach Bill Tatomer took over the program five years ago, he had a senior-loaded team and an all-state player in Blake Harries. The next year, he returned Harries, but started with just four other players.

"I'd known … because we graduated eight seniors that it was going to be a little difficult," he said. "I didn't think it would be that bad. Five girls show up the first day of practice. … I needed to increase numbers first and foremost."

He begged, pleaded and even convinced his own daughter to come out for the team. He managed to find three more players and then lost one to an injury. The Winged Lions played most of the season with seven players.

"We called them the 'Magnificent Seven,' " Tatomer said, smiling. "My goal was just to make it a positive experience so the incoming eighth-graders would see it's a fun thing, a productive experience."

Tatomer teaches math at Rowland Hall's junior high so he can be heard extolling the virtues of playing hoops. The result is that he has five times as many players as he started with, and that, he said, is turning the program around.

"It breeds competition," Tatomer said of having greater numbers. "That's the problem with my 'Magnificent Seven' year — we couldn't run against a press, we couldn't really run offense to defense, and it poses a whole different set of problems.

"Now we can practice the skill sets we need to do in order to be competitive."

Blueford is the only senior who has played all four seasons in a Rowland Hall uniform.

"It's neat because she's my first legacy," he said. "In that regard, she's very special for me. But she also sets the tone. Nobody works harder than she does. She doesn't get a whole lot of minutes … but she sets the example for the other girls (with her work ethic)."

Blueford said she enjoyed the unusual role she played in her first year of high school.

"I thought it was kind of exciting (to start as a freshman)," she said. "It helped me learn really quickly. And while I'm still behind some girls who've been playing all of their lives, I still have a lot of fun and I learn a lot. I did get a lot of personal time with the coach."

Still, she's glad to have more girls fighting for those precious game minutes.

"It's exciting because it gives us a chance to really compete," she said. "Before we were just playing because we loved the game; now we can really compete against other teams and prove how much we've worked over the years."

She said the challenges now begin at practice and continue in the games.

"Now it isn't a battle to win, it's a battle to get time on the court," Blueford. "You have to prove that you're good enough to be out there."

The squad has two other seniors — Anna Smith, who transferred from Skyline before her junior year, and Sophie Janes, an All-American lacrosse player who didn't play basketball her freshman year.

Smith said it was difficult to go from winning the state title as a freshman with the Eagles to playing in a program that could barely field a team the year before she transferred. But it's the experience of struggling — and even losing — that has helped her most.

"I'm a pretty competitive person, and it's been hard for me to learn to lose," Smith said. "I think that's been the main thing for basketball with me, especially here.

"When I was at Skyline, we won the state championship when I was a freshman. Here, it's been a real learning experience to learn how to lose and still be a teammate and still give compliments to the other girls. It's hard to listen to criticism when you're not doing well. I've applied that to a lot of things in my life, including school."

Tatomer said having Smith join the program last year raised the bar because she has been playing basketball all of her life and so many of the Winged Lions' players don't start until junior high or high school.

"She is as competitive as all get-out," Tatomer said. "She pushes everyone. Having her skill set on the team is very valuable."

Janes is just 5-foot-4, but she starts as the team's center (over taller teammates) because of her toughness.

"That's Miss Defense," he said, smiling. "That's Miss Hardworker. I just love having her out there. I need a girl who can put a body on somebody, and it's her. There is no surrender; it's not in her DNA."

Janes is used to success in sports like soccer and lacrosse, so adjusting to losing a lot was difficult.

"I've learned a lot about being resilient and coming back from a loss," she said. "Basketball, I love it, but I know I'm not the best. I've learned to be better. Last year coming back from 44-4 at halftime, you really learn that this is, this is kind of a bummer, but you have to come back from it. It's life."

Tatomer and his team are not sure just how much this year's squad is capable of, but they are enjoying the ride thus far. They will work hard, play hard and see what happens.

And while they do that, Tatomer said he hopes the players learn something more important than basketball skills.

"Our program is not about winning and losing," he said. "It's the character piece. I really want the takeaway to be to face adversity and handle adversity because life is full of it. And you've got to be able to handle it."