Three years ago, the Colony Knights girls basketball team handed visiting West High an embarrassing 86-30 loss -- the first of 21 defeats for a freshman-heavy Eagles team that won just a single game and failed to win a Cook Inlet Conference contest for a second consecutive season.
That was nothing new for the West girls. The dreadful 2006-07 campaign was the last year of a run that saw the Eagles go 1-35 in the CIC and win just seven games in three seasons.
What nobody could have known then was that in the ashes of that wretched season were the makings of what would become one of the most amazing turnarounds in recent prep history.
Flash forward to Dec. 19, 2009, when the West girls again bused out to the Valley to face Colony, a perennial girls hoops powerhouse coming off back-to-back Class 4A title game appearances.
Final score: West 44, Colony 37.
"That was a game we needed to win to make a statement," said Eagles senior Adrina Lavern-Tosi, who was a freshman when the Knights routed West.
West's turnaround began in the fall of 2007, when coach Tim Helvey arrived from Ninilchik with a long history of success. In his first head coaching stint at Class 2A Bristol Bay, Helvey, now 39, took the Angels to back-to-back state title games, winning it all in 2005. The following year, he moved to Ninilchik, where as an assistant to Dan Leman he helped the Wolverines win the championship over many of the same players he'd coached at Bristol Bay.
When Helvey arrived at West, he took over a team that was stocked with young players whose athletic skills were much further along than their basketball abilities.
"I knew they were athletes, they just weren't basketball players," Helvey said. "That first day of practice, we had to spend extra time just on how to shoot a left-handed lay-up."
In his first season, Helvey guided the Eagles to two CIC wins and a 6-16 overall record. Nothing special, but at least the Eagles were starting to compete.
"I wasn't expecting miracles that first year," he said.
What he did do was change the culture at West. Instead of thinking they were supposed to lose every time they stepped on the court, the Eagles knew winning was an option.
"You have to break that idea that we're so used to losing that going into each game you think you're supposed to lose," he said.
Last season the Eagles really began to soar. West went 15-13, finished third in the CIC and reached the state tournament for the first time in 13 seasons to erase any doubts that they were the real deal.
"Last year we really started to believe, started to put it together," Helvey said.
Now, with a team that features five seniors and perhaps the state's top front court in Lavern-Tosi and Tessla Rennie, the Eagles have their sights set even higher. They're off to a 5-2 start (2-0 in the CIC), with their only two losses coming to Outside teams at the prestigious Whataburger Tournament in Texas.
"It's the greatest feeling," Lavern-Tosi said. "Going from a team to didn't win any games to a team that's starting out strong, it's refreshing."
Lavern-Tosi said the biggest difference between the old West team and today's version is attitude.
"We're a lot more dedicated and determined," She said. "We just have that fire. We were tired of being pushed around."
She credited Helvey for giving the team a reason to believe in itself.
"He knows how to talk to us, and knows how to get you to do things so you understand what you're doing wrong and how to fix it," she said.
Helvey said his coaching philosophy relies simply on getting his players to play their hardest. After that, the rest comes easy.
"I just want them to never give up, always be diving for loose balls. If you have a turnover, go back and play hard at the other end," he said. "All I ask is that you give 100 percent at both ends. That, and I don't like to lose."
How far the Eagles go this year has yet to be determined, and Helvey said he's far from ready to declare them the favorites. But it's clear West is no longer content to scratch out a win here or there.
"We definitely want to be pushing toward that last game of the season, there's no doubt about it," he said. "But it's a long season, and we have to play every game. Anything can happen."
Whether or not the Eagles finish the season at the top has yet to be determined. What is known is that the team has come a remarkably long way in a short period of time. For Helvey, that's all that matters.
"I just love seeing the growth," he said. "That's the reward for me. Obviously it would be phenomenal to get there, and it would be extra special with this group because we've put a lot of hard work in a short period of time."
West has never won a state girls basketball title, and for the Eagles to have a shot this year, Helvey said the team must remain focused on improving. Lavern-Tosi said said that won't be a problem.
"It's not just get to state anymore, it's try and win state," she said. "So now our practices are a lot more intense and a lot more focused on the key mistakes that we do."
That work has led to a lot more smiling faces on the West sidelines -- and in the stands.
"We used to have people never come to our games and now people are showing up and being really supportive of us," she said. "We're having a lot of fun."
Find Matt Tunseth online at adn.com/contact/mtunseth or call 257-4335.
By MATT TUNSETH