Academic athletes

Mar. 7—SOAP LAKE — When a team sets a goal, it takes — well, teamwork to reach it. A new banner soon to be installed in the Soap Lake High School gym illustrates what happens when the SLHS girls basketball team took the concept and put it into practice.

The team was named WIAA 1B academic state champions for the 2023-24 basketball season, and was recognized during the 1B state tournament last week in Spokane. The Eagles finished with a 3.98 team grade point average.

Team members said they knew they had a chance to win an academic award, and sophomore Brooke Dana said the team decided to follow the advice of volleyball coach Nicole Noble.

"During volleyball season we just kept our grades up and Noble (said), 'If you keep it up, then you never know."

"You never know, you might get a reward," said sophomore Liana Sushik. "So let's do it."

"Let's just see what happens," Brooke Dana said.

Nevertheless, the announcement came as a surprise.

"We were so surprised," said sophomore Mylee Dana, Brooke's twin sister.

Noble was on another errand in the office, heard the girls talking with a visitor and had something she wanted to emphasize.

"They worked on this through two seasons, and some of them work outside of school, and they maintain that (grade point average)," she said.

Many members of the team juggle school and work, and most play three sports during the school year. Keeping up requires both individual and team effort, the girls said.

Six of the eight 2023-24 varsity players are sophomores, and Sushik said their history and friendship is an asset.

"We're together — we've been since sixth grade. We moved up. We work together. 'Oh, did you do your homework? Oh, do you need help on it?' We always check on each other," Sushik said.

Sophomore Sage Hart said there's an individual component too.

"I hold the standard for myself to keep my grades up," she said. "So I don't have to worry about it and I can continue doing sports."

Basketball coach Leonard Lundgren said he sets a standard too, and makes sure his players know what they're supposed to do.

"This is an honor to play," he said. "You don't get to show up and play because you're here. You have to do the things you have to do in order to be part of the team."

Lundgren also coaches middle school basketball, and the team heard the message — and got it — back then.

"They just went with it, and they've been doing a great job ever since."

The girls said Noble made it clear academics came first, and Lundgren said that's the consistent message. It's the message he heard as a high school athlete, he said, and he tries to pass it on to his teams.

"When it comes to the basketball team, he said, "or whatever sport, I said, 'You have to get your school stuff done first.' It's just one of those things."

Responsibility comes with being part of the team, he said.

"I always tell the girls, 'When you walk onto this court and you put on a Soap Lake uniform, you're not just representing the school, but you're representing myself as a coach as well. When you guys do bad things, it's not a reflection on you, but it's a reflection of me as a coach.' This is my eighth year coaching, and every year I tell them the same thing," he said. "These are my expectations."

Sophomore Tanya Zubritskiy said keeping up with academics and activities requires some organization.

"I usually keep a schedule. On Saturdays I mostly work on my homework and study, focus on that. And then in practice, I focus on practice," Zubritskiy said.

Hart said that focus, and consistency, are important.

"Labeling out those times, and figuring it out," she said.

The high school has a homeroom period, and SLHS teachers work with students to get assignments done in class when that's possible, the girls said. That makes the balancing act a little easier.

"It really helps a lot to get your homework done," Brooke Dana said.

"If you're stressing on something, you can just get it done in that period," Mylee Dana said.

The girls have learned they can ask each other for help, Sushik said.

"Even in practice, we're (asking), 'Can you help me with this assignment?'" she said. "We're like, 'Yeah, after school I'll show you how to do it.'"

Hart said Soap Lake teachers also want to help them succeed, and that's crucial.

"I think it helps out a lot, knowing that we have people who want to help us become better," Hart said.

The sophomores on the team have been friends since junior high, and their families are friends. That helps build bonds between them, the girls said.

The mutual support doesn't mean competitiveness goes away, though.

"We're all competitive. We just won't allow ourselves to let each other fail," Hart said.

The girls said they hope the academic championship can be an example to other Soap Lake students.

"It's going to be really cool when we get the banner," Brooke Dana said. "And we'll be looking at it, and it can inspire others.'

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at