There’s so much to credit regarding the Ellensburg High School girls basketball dominant, undefeated season.

It can be pointed to Jeff Whitney’s coaching philosophies; the inextricable chemistry; the talent across the roster; the impenetrable defense; the fast-scoring offense; and much more.

But one facet that goes unnoticed? The mental positivity the Bulldogs exude practice after practice, game after game.

And while it’s harder to physically see on the court compared to when Ellensburg is forcing turnovers, hitting 3s, and making fast-break buckets — it’s there.

It’s one of the reasons the Bulldogs continue to thrive. And when adversity hits — which wasn’t very often this season — the mental side remains unwavering.

“I think the mental aspect of the game gets overlooked because we’re so focused on practice, conditioning and shooting and everything,” senior Brinley Hagemeier said. “So, we’re so focused on the physical aspect, but this is equally as important.”

But just like the physical aspect of the game, it takes plenty of practice with the mental side, too.

Enter Katrina Whitney, the wife of the Bulldogs coach who was a former collegiate basketball player at Seattle University and earned her major in psychology and masters in education with counseling.

When Ellensburg suffered three-straight losses after a torrid 10-2 start in conference play in the 2018-19 season, Katrina Whitney stepped in.

“They went through a little dip in December, and I said to Jeff, ‘can I just have them? Can you just let me talk to them for a short time?’” she said. “And when I did, it started then talking about the pressures of being an athlete and what that means.”

Katrina Whitney’s always carried an interest in sports psyche, and largely because of how often it was applied in her college career at Seattle U. She was first introduced to it during high school as her coach had the team perform visualization drills.

When she began working with Ellensburg girls, nothing was structured at first. They would simply converse during the team’s shootaround and practice visualization.

But this was the outset of something that would soon evolve.

“I took them through a visualization — it’s a positive visualization about how you’re performing in the game, you actually watch yourself perform. I did that with them and they seemed to enjoy it,” Katrina Whitney said. “That’s what really intrigued me by how they were receptive of it. Then I said, ‘I think I really want to look into this a little bit more.’”

It provoked her to go after her certification in mPEAK (Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge) which is a 3-day mindfulness training at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. She completed the course last September.

Katrina Whitney also earned her certification in Yoga in 2018.

So, now this season she’s been incorporating her Yoga skills, which is often done before games, and her mindfulness exercises that’s once a week before or after practice in an EHS classroom.

And with a 20-0 record along with being dubbed as the No. 1 2A team in the state (as of now), it’s hard to argue against Katrina Whitney’s methods.

“I definitely think our mentalities last year compared to this year are so much different,” Hagemeier said. “Last year we were young and we were kind of insecure, weren’t ready for a lot of things. But now this year I think we’re a lot more confident and we know the sky’s the limit.”

What’s been salient for the Bulldogs is how to respond instead of react in high-stress situations.

For example, a player drives to the basket and doesn’t get the foul call they expected. The reaction? Sulk about it and have it affect your game negatively.

The response? Flush it out, not let it get to you emotionally, and then go play tough defense.

“What I’ve witnessed in the growth of the girls is that ability to respond to high-intensity pieces and not react,” Katrina Whitney said. “They’ve kept their composure. Jeff actually during timeouts, he’ll say, ‘just breathe,’ because we talk a lot about the mind-body connection and how storytelling and making meaning of performance story can be really impactful in how we perform.”

But a key commonality the Bulldogs derive is being there for one another when things go awry.

“How do we treat each other? How do we go about making sure that we’re positive with each other? Jeff Whitney said. “Because it’s always easy to say, ‘hey, you need to rebound, you need to defend.’ How do you pick up your teammate? And when do you see them down?

“I think that’s really helped us take a better look at besides themselves, their teammates. … When someones down, we always say someones got to pick them up.”

Said Hagemeier: “I know that if I’m not confident in myself, I can turn to Dylan (Philip), Payton (Lyyski), Kaelynn (Smith), someone in there and right there to pick everyone up. I think we get confidence from each other.”

Katrina Whitney plans out different exercises during the team’s mindfulness each week which can be meditations, games, journal writing, and more.

So, is Katrina Whitney the secret behind the Bulldogs’ prosperity?

“I don’t know if I’m the secret ingredient,” she said. “I think they’re very talented. These girls have played together for a long time. They’re just cool people. They’re just totally cool people. And I think that in a lot of ways makes the magic happen.

“I just get to be part of the coolness of it, right?”

Luke Olson:; on Twitter: @lukeolsonb.


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