The better the bond — the chemistry, the preempting — the better the basketball.
The Clarkston High girls’ team might be Washington’s best example of such.
The Bantams, last season’s third-place finishers at State and expected returners to the tournament this year, boast five starters who’ve played together competitively for about a decade.
They are: seniors Jalena Henry, Mickala Jackson, Lauren Johnson and AJ Sobotta, and junior Ashlyn Wallace.
And it’s quite obvious — on and off the hardwood — that this is a uniquely tight-knit group.
In play, the passes are fluid and frequent, the turnovers are scarce, the communication is clear and the trust is abundant, as are the wins. Clarkston went 25-3 last season.
The “epitome of this team,” said coach Debbie Sobotta, came during a Regionals game last year against Port Angeles. On one possession, every player touched the ball, which never hit the floor. It ended with a no-look pass from Johnson to Henry, who cut back-door and laid it in.
“They had so many of those chemistry plays,” the eighth-year coach said. “I just thought, ‘These girls can read each other so well.’ I felt like I could just sit back and watch them.”
When they aren’t terrorizing the Class 2A Great Northern League with cohesion unmatched, these Bantams are finishing each other’s sentences, dancing in unison, hanging out at the Jackson abodes or reminiscing about old times, of which there are many to be recalled.
The fact they’re all together is fortuitous in itself. Only two — Johnson and AJ Sobotta — hail from Clarkston. Wallace and Henry are from Lapwai and Jackson Lewiston.
“Somehow, we all just came together,” said the younger Sobotta, a quick-handed slasher and Debbie’s daughter. “When we were little, we’d play against each other because we were all on different teams, then we just joined up.”
Said savvy defender and vocal leader Johnson, attempting to explain the happenstance: “I think all of our parents had a love for the game, and they all wanted us to play together.”
It began when the seniors were in the third grade (Wallace played up), balling under AAU coach Pat Sobotta, a fundamentals-minded assistant at Clarkston and husband of the head coach.
The Henrys and Sobottas share a relation, and the other families, through various means, are close as well. Coming together felt natural.
From third to eighth grade, with the same coach, the five developed hoops skills and companionship in AAU ball. They traveled around the Pacific Northwest, competing — and oftentimes winning — tournaments in Spokane and Seattle, among other places, against players who are now upper-tier national recruits.
“It was pretty cool that we’d either win these tournaments or be in the final four,” Pat Sobotta said. “It seemed like we were always in the mix.
“I always saw them as being a very competitive team, the five.”
Said Henry, a smooth-shooting post: “We were pretty dominant. And it wasn’t like we’d just stay in town and play the same people.”
In sixth (and fifth) grade, they won the state AAU tournament. That same season featured one of their most cherished memories, which they were quick to whisper about, then hesitated to share before finally admitting to themselves it had to get out.
“We had a tournament in Spokane. Ash fouled a girl, and in the moment, I meant to say, ‘Oh, just keep going, Ash,’” said Jackson, a sniper from 3-point land. “But I said, ‘Just keep farting.’
“We had to stop.”
Chipped in Wallace, a do-it-all point guard and University of Idaho commit: “We all started crying.”
It was a microcosm of an expanding bond on and off the court, one of many can’t-forget moments that somewhat prompted them to stay together — it showed they were inseparable. That especially showed when they went 20-0 in their junior-high years.
That the Sobottas were coaching at Clarkston certainly was a sign, too.
“Pat helped us a lot; he knows us all so well and what we can do,” Wallace said. “We created a trust with him.”
AJ Sobotta and Johnson were joined by Jackson and Wallace in junior high, when their families moved to Clarkston. As a freshman, Henry “walked through our doors too,” Debbie Sobotta said.
“I reaped the benefits of (Pat’s) hard labor,” she said with a laugh. “It was wishful thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if they could play their years out in high school together?’ I knew they wouldn’t because they were from different towns.
“Well, they surprised us.”
It’s no surprise now just how successful the bunch is, considering the experience, comfort and a chemistry so magnetic that Bantam newcomers mixed in “seamlessly,” Sobotta said.
Also seamless is the Clarkston Five’s long-grown knowledge of one another. Going down the line, each had little trouble emphasizing her teammates’ top facets.
Henry, Jackson said, “is just smooth.” She prohibits opponents’ tallest players, controls the boards and has a mid-range jumper better than your average post.
Johnson, AJ Sobotta said, is basically “ambidextrous.” She’s a consistent free-throw shooter, a maker of head-scratching shots down low and mostly, the team’s premier lock-down defender.
Sobotta, Johnson said, flourishes with “crazy passes” and is maybe the team’s fastest player. She’s a balanced shooter from across the floor, a proficient cutter, rebounder and facilitator.
Wallace, Henry said, is “just all-around.” Jackson grinned and began counting off traits on her hand that apply to the future Vandal and Adidas All-American, who averaged about 26 points, five assists and five steals per game last year.
Jackson, Sobotta said, “is definitely the shooter.” She’s been known to spearhead a comeback or two, and “will always dive on the ground,” Johnson noted. Jackson’s the scrapper, who gives the hard high fives and mentally exhausts Clarkston’s foes with physicality.
“They’re all unique as basketball players, but they fit so well together,” Pat Sobotta said.
In short, there’s a familiarity there. For 10 years, they’ve played the same positions on the same teams.
“We definitely know what we’re gonna do,” Johnson said. “In any game, you can just see us get on a roll. We know where each other will be and we know how to get it there.”
The upcoming season will be an emotional one for both the players and coaches, who’ve joked that they’re going to skip Senior Night.
Since 2010, the group’s been building up to this moment. It’s their last campaign as a collective — now’s as good a time as ever to win a state title.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Jackson said. “We’re all so close, so no matter what, we’ll always have each other’s backs.”
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260,