Women’s Hoops: Whip it good

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

Kalee Whipple, the U women’s basketball team’s starting small forward, won’t be offended if you tell her you’ve never heard of her hometown of Hiko, Nev. No one’s heard of it. In fact, it’s described as a “semi-ghost town” on Wikipedia.com.

“If you go north of Vegas for a hundred miles, you’ll just randomly run into (it),” said the sophomore. “It’s a really, really small town. (There’s) a lot of ranching and farming.”

“Small” doesn’t quite capture Hiko. “Miniscule” is probably a better word, considering there were only 24 people in her graduating class and 80-something students in grades nine through 12.

“We were one of the bigger classes,” Whipple said.

Whipple is one of No. 19-ranked Utah’s major scoring threats. With the top two scorers in the MWC on her team — Leilani Mitchell and Morgan Warburton — Whipple doesn’t get the attention she might if she played on a team with fewer weapons. But as the third-leading scorer on the Utes, she is also the sixth-leading scorer in the conference with 14.6 points a game.

Whipple’s name can be found among the conference leaders in virtually every major category. She leads the conference in field goal percentage at 55 percent. She’s also fourth in rebounds (6.8), fifth in free-throw percentage (83 percent), seventh in assists (3.11), and on and on.

Whipple’s shooting accuracy is all the more impressive considering that she doesn’t just camp out under the basket and make layups. She prides herself on her 3-point shooting.

“I don’t think it was really until my senior year or coming into college that I really started working on my 3 (pointers),” Whipple said. “I was more of a jump shooter. During the summer I worked a lot on just shooting 3s, spotting up, getting the footwork right — that kind of stuff.”

Much of Whipple’s 25.3 point-scoring average in high school came off the dribble, but with a point guard like the one Utah has running the show, there are ample opportunities in Utah’s offense for wing players to make outside shots when defenses collapse on Mitchell.

To prepare herself for big-time college hoops, Whipple played in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) ball during the summer before her freshman year to help her with the transition from 1-A high school play to NCAA Division-I basketball.

“It’s a pretty big jump from a little, small school of 80-something people to go to a Division-I school where you don’t know anybody. I mean, last year was definitely a big growing (experience) just getting to know the roll I was supposed to be and the feeling of what type of game (head coach Elaine Elliott) likes.”

Not knowing anybody was a strange experience for Whipple, who is used to knowing, literally, everybody in her community. Whipple enjoyed the “comfort level, security and support that everybody gives you” living in a secluded, little town like Hiko, where not even the uncoordinated girls get cut from the basketball team. Everyone who tries out for the Pahranagat Valley High School girls’ basketball squad is welcomed with open arms, Whipple explained.

“You just separate the teams into JV and varsity,” she said.

So what kind of omniscient recruiting operation is Elliott running to enable her to find players from middle-of-nowhere towns in different states?

“Her coach sent us a video,” said Elliott, who also found out about Whipple from an assistant coach’s wife, whose family lives in the Hiko area.

“Everybody knows everybody there,” said Elliott, who refers to Whipple as a “total prototype for a small forward.”

“She has great strength, can play the block, has great shooting range, can put it on the floor,” Elliott said. “She’s physically strong. She’s got all the attributes.”

Like many athletes, Whipple was a multi-sport star in high school. She won four straight state championships in basketball and three straight in volleyball. Along with basketball and volleyball, she was also involved in softball and track.

Kalee Whipple’s mom, Ginger, was her high school’s long-time volleyball coach, so Whipple spent much of her youth in the gym.

“High school was when I actually decided that I wanted to play basketball, not volleyball,” Whipple said. “That was a tough decision for me. I really like volleyball.”

Whipple, the fifth of sixth kids born to Murray and Ginger Whipple, draws some very boisterous fans to the Huntsman Center. Whipple’s cheering section holds up hand-printed signs that read, among other puns, “Whip it good!”

“Those are cousins and nieces and nephews,” the 6-foot Whipple said. “My whole family was at the BYU game, so that was all my brothers and sisters and their kids.”

Her family ended up being a good-luck charm as the Utes took a 22-0 lead over their rivals, humiliating BYU on its home court.

It was a surprising start by anyone’s estimation, but the 2007-2008 season has been especially eye-opening for the Utes, who were picked to finish fifth in the MWC in a preseason poll.

“When (Morgan) and (Leilani) went to that media day and they ranked us fifth, they came back, and all we could do was just smile,” Whipple said.

Whipple, who has relished being an underdog, isn’t necessarily surprised that her team is on a 15-game winning streak and ranked No. 19 in the nation.

“Coming into this year, we felt really good,” Whipple said. “We knew the people coming in were really going to help us, so I’m not surprised at the success we’re having.”

After the Utes finally cracked the Top 25 at No. 20 two weeks ago, the team briefly celebrated the accomplishment in practice.

“Elaine talked to us in the middle of the court,” Whipple said. “We got excited. We all gave high fives — that kind of stuff.”

Whipple, who describes herself as “competitive” and “strong-willed” is admired by her more visible teammates for her hard-nosed nature on the court.

“(Whipple’s style is) in your face,” said Warburton, Whipple’s counterpart on the other wing. “If someone is stepping up and wants to compete with her, she answers right back right away.”

Perhaps Whipple will be the one to put sleepy, little Hiko, Nev., on the map.

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Teresa Getten

Coming from a small town in Nevada, Kalee Whipple has had a big impact on the U women’s basketball team this season. She is currently sixth in the MWC with 14.6 points per game.