SEATTLE (AP) — The chatter Hailey Van Lith heard from back home started in the immediate aftermath of the NCAA Tournament bracket being unveiled.
Two wins. That was the request from friends and family in her small hometown, all hoping that to see Van Lith get a trip home.
“Everyone was like, you just need to get there, you just need to make it to Sweet 16. And we have,” Van Lith said Thursday. “The best of the best happened that we got the right region and we were able to win our first two games and I’m going to be able to play in front of a lot of people who haven’t seen me play in a while."
Van Lith is the main attraction for a Seattle regional site mostly devoid of any West Coast influence. The No. 5 seed Cardinals will face No. 8 seed Ole Miss in the Seattle Regional 4 semifinals on Friday night, but with a cheering section likely the envy of the other teams playing in town.
Around these parts, Van Lith is a household name. She’s the small-town standout from 130 miles away who grew into being one of the best prep players in the country, the all-time state high school leader in scoring and now a star for the Cardinals.
And with two more wins, she could have Louisville headed to a second straight Final Four.
“I think offensively we’re better this year than we were last year and I think we have been all year,” said Van Lith, who is averaging 19.5 points per game. “So to see the defensive end come full circle, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Van Lith is from Cashmere, a town of about 3,200 some 2½ hours east of Seattle in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains that was previously best known for being the home to Aplets & Cotlets, a candied snack mix of apples, apricots and walnuts.
That was before Hailey. From the moment Van Lith started tearing through the Caribou Trail League at Cashmere High, her play on the court became one of the biggest attractions in North Central Washington. Packed gyms at home and on the road were the norm, including a famous visit from Kobe and Gianna Bryant only a couple of weeks before their death in a helicopter crash.
“She’s really grown in just the area of being a student of the game. She’s always loved the game. She’s always studied it, but I think now she’s really taking what she’s learning. Because in high school, she scored. I mean she scored the basketball at will,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “And now you get to this stage and you’re playing against some pretty darn good players.”
Levi Heyen is the boys’ basketball coach at Cashmere High School. He first took notice of Van Lith’s dominance on the soccer field in grade school. By the time she was in high school, Heyen was inviting Van Lith to join pickup games with his boys team and eventually playing with the Cashmere boys during summer leagues.
“I remember when she was a freshman, I had senior boys fighting over who was guarding her because nobody wanted to guard her,” Heyen recalled. “They were seniors and she was a freshman and they didn’t want any piece of that because they knew they were going to look bad. They knew she was going to twist them up and either put them on their back with a crossover, or blow by them or throw a shoulder into their chest and get a bucket.”
Heyen said the entire region of North Central Washington has adopted Van Lith in the same way it did with Joe Harris, currently with the Brooklyn Nets. Once he was done tormenting teenagers in the area as a prep star at Chelan High School, the region adopted Harris once he went off to Virginia.
Heyen has seen parallels with Van Lith.
“They don’t have to be from Cashmere to take pride in what she’s doing. She’s got a huge fan base and it’s really exciting to see that she’s going to be over here,” Heyen said. “I teach middle school and high school, and the impact she has on these middle school girls that she’s never met is crazy. They come and talk about her all the time.”
Van Lith said that’s been one of her goals.
“I think that representation matters and when they see me on the court, they think that they can do it too,” she said. “That’s probably what I hope means the most.”
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