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Benefield: Cloverdale's Tehya Bird shines in her 'other' sport

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CLOVERDALE — It was not her finest game by any stretch, but longtime Cloverdale High girls basketball coach Rick Berry this week recalled a game two seasons ago in which Tehya Bird, his star post player who was trying to rally back from a right wrist injury, made a radical adjustment.

Her first game, back she shot everything with her off hand.

“She was shooting free throws with her left hand,” Berry said, nearly laughing. “And she was shooting 60%. That’s the kind of athlete she is.”

But I’d venture to say that this is the kind of athlete Bird is: The post player scored her 2,000th career point Friday night as part of her 33-point performance in the Eagles’ 59-37 win over Middletown that guaranteed Cloverdale at least a piece of the North Central League I title for the second year running.

The milestone puts Bird in rarified air among Cloverdale greats. The game was stopped. She was given the game ball. And this: Basketball is Bird’s secondary sport, the game she plays in the offseason for fun.

That’s the kind of athlete she is.

Her main sport is softball. She’s committed to play for the University of Oregon next fall — a deal that has been in the works since she verbally committed as an eighth-grader. That is the kind of athlete she is.

But to watch her play basketball is to assume you are watching a hoopster, not a hobbyist.

To hear Berry tell it, last season Bird caught wind of talk that some were slightly dismissive of her hardwood skills.

“They said she was a good athlete playing basketball and that kind of bothered her a little bit, like she’s not considered a basketball player,” he said.

She is no doubt an athlete. But she is also no doubt a basketball player. She’s a 5-foot, 10-inch post player of almost obvious physical strength. On Friday, Middletown collapsed three players on her under the basket and still she grabbed rebounds, got putbacks and kicked out passes to Eagles perched around the arc, ready to make the defense pay for being so focused on Bird.

“Basically, her way is will and determined,” Berry said of how she has scored all of those points over four seasons. “She’s active and she’s hard working. She keeps things going, she is relentless on the boards.”

Berry recalled a game against Clear Lake in which the defense seemed to get her number a little bit. They held her to 14 points. But, according to Berry, she grabbed 18 boards and kept her teammates shooting — and scoring — all night.

To hear Bird describe her game is mildly amusing.

“I’m not a great shooter,” said the player who just scored her 2,000th point.

Her midrange game is decent and her three-point shooting? Well, she’d rather not, thank you.

She took one shot from the behind the arc Friday. She missed.

She’s gotten almost all of those points from grinding. With her back to the basket, she works the defense down at will. On the boards, she’s up higher and faster than taller opponents. And in tangles for loose balls in the key? No one is ripping the ball from her hands.

So her milestone bucket was an appropriate one — a rebound off a missed shot set off a scrum under the basket, Bird emerged, ball in hand, and scooped one in from the other side of the hoop.

“Athletically, she can play at the next level,” Berry said. “There is no doubt in my mind she could play Division II right now. She definitely has the physical attributes. She’s strong and explosive.”

But it wasn’t always this way.

“Most of my freshman year was me not knowing what I’m doing,” she said. “I was on a varsity team where all the girls knew what they were doing. They had played basketball their whole lives.”

When she got to high school, Bird’s basketball background was spotty. She had one year of Catholic Youth Organization play under her belt as a fourth grader and two years of middle school hoops, butthat was it. When she showed up at Berry’s tryout, she was a nearly blank — albeit freakishly athletic — canvas.

But Berry knew what kind of athlete was joining his ranks.

“My wife coached her in junior high, so we knew,” he said.

But Bird struggled a little bit early on.

“My freshman year I wasn’t really much of a fan,” she said. “I just didn’t like not knowing what I was doing. … I was really worried about if I keep making mistakes, how are these older girls going to think about it?”

She even turned to her family — almost all of them former, and highly decorated, Eagles athletes — and asked for a little pep talk. No, she wasn’t really thinking of hanging it up — but yes, as a freshman struggling for perhaps the first time with a sport, she needed a little confidence boost.

“I never really thought of ever getting close to quitting. It was just a conversation I needed to have with my family,” she said. “They picked me up. It was ‘You are fine; you will get the hang of it.’”

And when it clicked, it clicked.

“By the time I got into my sophomore year, it was easy peasy,” she said.

That’s not to say she doesn’t work for it. Berry has never seen Bird go easy, take a play off or play the diva.

“I have never had one issue with Tehya,” he said. “Either thinking she is better than anyone else or being a prima donna.”

Yes, she’s gifted. But she is also a worker.

“She’s a good example,” he said. “She is never late for practice — she’s here 10 minutes early. She’s a pleasure to coach.

“Her teammates love Tehya,” Berry said. “She gives you everything she’s got during the season.”

To see the underclassmen celebrate Bird and fellow seniors Maci Hernandez and Morgan Sceales on senior night Friday is to understand that. To watch her teammates mob her after Bird reached the scoring landmark was to witness it.

Blood, sweat and tears? Cliché in most cases, but not for Bird on Friday night. In getting her sixth point of the game and her 2,000th and 2,001st of her career, she came up bloody. She took a knock that split her right eyebrow open. Yes, play stopped so teammates (and Middletown coaches and players) could congratulate her, but it couldn’t be resumed until her brow was taped together.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Bird and Bella Dubois crashed into each other at nearly full speed. Bird, holding her jaw, eventually got to her feet teary-eyed and shaken. But she did not come out of the game. And she scored on the Eagles’ next possession.

That play made me think: Did the folks at Oregon discourage her from playing multiple sports for the Eagles? What if their top-shelf softball prospect hurt herself playing something else?

That’s never been an issue, she said.

“Not at all,” she said. “They pretty much told me that (they) like me playing other sports.”

Good thing, because Bird shines in those other sports. Last spring she was the rare junior honored as The Press Democrat’s All-Empire Athlete of the Year.

She remains a softballer at her core, but basketball, after that tough introduction, has worked its way into this softball player’s heart.

“I love my teammates,” she said. “Basketball is the best season. We have the best time together, we get along so well. And I love Berry and I love the way he coaches. Coming to basketball, it’s not just the sport, it’s pretty much a family atmosphere. I get to walk into the gym every day and everyone is happy to be there.”

It’s not a bad way to moonlight.

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