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St. Maryís Abby Steinsiek specializes in tough defense and strong leadership. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore

Dynamic Defender

Inside the Pendleton Convention Center, Rick Jackson thought for a moment about a potential matchup nightmare late last winter.

The St. Mary's head girls basketball coach needed someone who could keep up with East Linn Christian Academy's Hannah Whitehead, the defending Class 2A state champion in the 400-meter race and a dangerous scorer on the hardwood.

Who was fast enough, long enough and tough enough to defend her, Jackson wondered.

It didn't take him long to come up with the solution: Abby Steinsiek. She and Whitehead were spitting images of each other — rangy and quick, wiry and fit. Plus Steinsiek was fourth in that same 400-meter dash.

Bingo, Jackson thought. He gave the junior the start in his team's 2A state semifinal contest in 2010. Steinsiek did the rest, limiting Whitehead to 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting and helping the Crusaders to a 54-28 victory over the Eagles.

St. Mary's lost to Portland Christian in the championship game, but plenty was gained in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon: For Steinsiek, it was an even greater ardor for defense; for Jackson, an even stronger appreciation for her attitude.

"When it comes to awards and honors, I don't think a lot of coaches and a lot of fans and people really give defense the place it deserves," Jackson says. "When you look at teams that win state titles, it always starts with defense. And that's Abby."

Fast forward one year. Steinsiek is taller at about 5-foot-8. The 17-year-old senior is older, wiser and hungrier, with hopes that the program's ascension during her three years playing will culminate with a state title this winter. While she's averaged 10.3 points per game this year, the multi-sport standout says her main duty is to defend doggedly.

Fortunately for her teammates and unfortunately for the opposition, she truly savors the role of stopper, too.

"Sometimes my offense isn't on, so I want to motivate girls to play better defense," she says. "And defense wins games."

And Steinsiek is surely accustomed to winning.

Top-ranked St. Mary's is 22-0 this year. The Southern Cascade Hybrid champions, whose last conference loss came on Feb. 12, 2008, host Rainier in a 3A state playoff game at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The Columbians (17-10) are led by Kaylea Knox, a 5-foot-5 sophomore guard who propelled her team to a dramatic 68-66 triple-overtime win over Clatskanie on Feb. 8. Knox knocked down two 3-point buzzer-beaters, including a running halfcourt bank shot that sent the game into overtime and a rainbow 3-pointer that pushed the contest into double-OT. She finished with 31 points.

Rainier will be tested by the experience of the Crusaders, who have inched closer and closer to a state crown. They lost in the quarterfinals in 2007-08. In 2008-09, they fell in the semifinals. Last year, they came up short in the championship game.

"That definitely spices it up and adds a greater drive for succeeding farther," Steinsiek says.

And as the years have rolled by, a sisterhood has developed, Steinsiek says.

"Coming into our sophomore year with Mackenzie Krieser, Domonique Valdez and Kylee Adderson, we had a good group of girls," the Ashland resident says. "We have clicked. We definitely click as a group when we are together."

This season's group received a pair of golden additions in 5-foot-11 senior post Jamee Batten (who transferred from South Medford) and freshman guard Emily Alvarez.

"We didn't have a stacked 10 like in years past," says Steinsiek. "We had a solid seven. (Batten) was a huge addition to our team. We lost (graduated senior) Katie Bates. We thought, 'What will we do at post?' And Emily is astonishing. We knew about her though. Jasmine (Alvarez) is her older sister."

Steinsiek's love of D grew as she watched her older sister, Nikki Steinsiek, compete at St. Mary's.

"She motivated me to play good defense," she says of Nikki, who now is a 20-year-old cross country and track and field athlete at Colorado College.

Ask Steinsiek about her team's swarming full-court defensive press and a smile quickly sprints across her face.

"It is really fun to do," says Steinsiek, who averages 3.7 steals per game. "It gets me completely tired. It's great messing up a team and throwing stuff at them. I like pressing and then going into man-to-man."

Jackson appreciates her unique defensive presence.

"The thing that makes her really special as a defender is her length for a guard/wing," he says. "A lot of good guards at this level are shorter, and Abby has incredibly long arms and she uses them so well. She has the lateral quickness to contain quick guards and the length to contest the shooting of bigger guards."

Collectively, Jackson has group of athletes who have shined in other sports, including track and field and volleyball. Like the relay teams that captured the 4x100 and 4x400 state championships last spring, the basketball squad thrives on its speed and athleticism.

"They cover a lot of ground," Jackson says.

Steinsiek says that she often falls into her own zone as she locks in on her assignment.

"During the game I never know how many points they have," she says. "I always notice when they score, but I'm just focused on them: where they are, what they are doing."

As for her offense?

"I try to make the shots when we need them," she says. "We have all kinds of shooters on the team."

When she's not shooting hoops, Steinsiek is chasing down soccer balls and racing down track records.

On the pitch, she made the District 4 all-league first team and helped guide St. Mary's to the 3A/2A/1A state championship, where the squad lost to Catlin Gabel Eagles 2-0. The Crusaders finished 15-1-1 overall and were 43-6-2 during the midfielder's three-year career there.

In track and field, St. Mary's surpassed the 2A record for team points and won the state championship for the second year in a row last spring. Steinsiek, a Division I prospect, was on both winning relays teams (4x100 and 4x400).

But in the 400-meter dash she came in second to Whitehead, who is now a freshman competing at Corban University.

Steinsiek's eager for her shot at first.

"The motivation comes from other sports," she says. "We know how it is to be in the championship and we know what it feels like to be in the semifinals. We want to win a championship."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com

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