Grace Academy first-year coach Bill Kelley couldn’t help but notice a glaring absence when he walked into the school’s gymnasium.
Kelley is plenty accustomed to winning. He’s won multiple league titles coaching for years at Archbishop Murphy, Bellevue, Seattle Prep and Cedar Park Christian. So when Kelley scanned the Grace Academy gym and saw league-title banners for every sport offered to students except girls basketball, he was confounded.
“I pointed to that when I first took over,” Kelley said. “It was a surprise to me to see that. I’m sure (the players) were aware of it.”
While Kelley couldn’t say when Grace Academy’s girls basketball program started, since the school opened more than 40 years ago, the team had never won a league championship.
But with Kelley, who’s added to the foundation cemented by former coach Steve Hume, senior standout Ashley VanDam, second-year star Heidi Impola and a cast of other contributors, the Eagles are enjoying the best season in program history.
With a win over Lopez on Jan. 24, Grace Academy (12-3, 10-0 Northwest League 1B) officially wrapped up the 2018-19 Northwest 1B league title, finishing conference play with a perfect record.
Athletic Director Mark Ruhlman wasted no time ordering a girls basketball banner, but he isn’t hoisting it just yet.
“He doesn’t want to put it up, because he’s hoping to put a district championship on it and more when we are all done,” said Kelley, laughing. “I keep telling the kids to be thankful, but don’t be satisfied.”
Grace Academy, which is ranked No. 8 in Class 1B in the latest WIAA RPI Rankings, gets the chance to make more school history when the Eagles open the 1B District 1 Tournament against Lopez on Saturday at Marysville Getchell High School.
Several factors are responsible for Grace Academy’s breakout season.
Kelley has implemented an up-tempo style complete with heavy defensive pressure. VanDam, a senior guard who missed all of last year after suffering a torn ACL in summer ball, has thrived in the system. Impola, a freshman forward who was a varsity standout as an eighth-grader last year, has flourished as well.
Both VanDam and Impola contribute in all facets. VanDam averages 17.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game, and Impola offers 13.0 points per game, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.5 blocks.
“She is a really good athlete and loves basketball,” Kelley said of VanDam. “She wanted a chance to leave her mark. The thing about her is she has such a positive attitude and confidence.”
VanDam’s confidence is infectious, Kelley said, and has positively impacted players such as Impola, who has taken another big step forward.
“Heidi is just smooth, and has a very smooth game,” Kelley said. “You think, ‘My goodness, the sky’s the limit for this kid.’ She has the nicest looking shot and can play inside and outside and can drive. Her confidence has picked up a lot. She’s a lot tougher.”
Team chemistry, though, cannot be understated in Grace Academy’s breakout season. To some regard, togetherness comes natural to a school with less than 200 students. Unlike area 3A and 4A schools where some players might go the whole day without interacting, Grace Academy players are with each other every turn.
“Coach Kelley really brings us together,” VanDam said. “He is open and really welcoming. I have tried to bring everyone together, too, through hard work on the court and being a good team captain and leader.”
Grace Academy’s success has brought the Marysville-based private school together, too.
“Currently, we have a lot of things going on at the school, but this has been added to the top,” VanDam said. “Our principal noticed we were first in league and undefeated and posted on the Grace Academy Facebook page to come out and support the girls. You have no idea how many people came out that night. It was unbelievable.”
“It has been really cool to have teachers come up and talk to us about (the season),” Impola said. “It’s cool for the first time we are champions. Grace is such a small community, and everyone knows what it going on, so when something special happens, we all get to be a part of it.”
While Grace Academy isn’t looking too far ahead, there’s no denying the Eagles hope to reach their first ever state tournament in a season brimming with new experiences.
“It would mean everything,” Kelley said. “We are pointed there. Our first goal was to win league and (we) emphasized that all year. Then it was go undefeated, and now it’s to win districts and get to tri-district. But in the back of our mind, really we would love to go to state, and the school has gotten so much behind that.”