Tucson Youth Sports

Tucson Rattlers’ girls hoops program humming along 10 years after inception


It is the 10th anniversary for when Chris Klassen and his wife Katie brainstormed for the best way his Booth-Fickett Middle School girls basketball team could stay sharp year round, a novel concept for Tucson-area hoops at that time.

Klassen, a 1999 Palo Verde High School grad who played at Williams Penn University in Iowa, was back in Tucson trying to get his coaching career off the ground. He was not about to allow his Booth-Fickett team to fend for themselves with pickup games or recreational league summer games that were not highly competitive.

“I was hungry to coach and my team back then was hungry to learn,” Klassen said. “We had to come up with something.”

Chris and Katie (the strength and conditioning coach) came up with the idea of organizing a youth club team called the Tucson Rattlers that would allow the Booth-Fickett girls a means to play other club teams in the state during the summer months.

“We had only eight girls on that team,” Klassen said. “We organized the team to make those girls better for Fickett. … My wife and I could not have imagined 10 years ago it would be like this.”

Tucson Rattlers coach Chris Klassen yells out instruction during a recent practice at Pima Community College (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Klassen pointed toward the basketball court at Pima Community College, where he is now an assistant under women’s coach Todd Holthaus. Getting ready for practice on the court were two of Klassen’s Rattlers teams, the 17-and-under and 16-and-under units who are competing regionally and nationally this month.

The 17U team traveled to Chicago today to begin play tomorrow in the Nike Tournament of Champions, which will include college recruiters from NCAA Division I to the junior college ranks. The event runs through Thursday.

The 16U team went 2-2 last weekend in the NCAA National Showcase in Irvine, Calif.

“We started the Rattlers to help keep Fickett going year round, but after that started, it became a case of her friend told her friend and that kid told that kid … it just kept snowballing,” Klassen said. “And as they got older, I had to start looking at bigger tournaments. We had to go to Phoenix and then Phoenix was not enough any more and then Vegas and then California.

“When that first group of Fickett players got to the 16-17 age, we started branching out to games at Oregon, Chicago and Atlanta. All of these colleges are there. At first, it’s overwhelming. It’s like, ‘Holy crap, that’s (UConn legendary coach) Geno (Auriemma) right there sitting courtside.

“Now we have five teams of different age groups, 100’s of ex-players, 41 of them who have gone on to play in college. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come from where we started 10 years ago.”

What has made the Rattlers thrive, other than Klassen’s diligence, is the belief system and family support model he has developed with his former and present players.

Former Rattlers return to coach Klassen’s teams, including Salpointe grads Marissa Herington and Iliana Gonzales with the 12U team, Marana grad Kim Sams with the 14U team and Pusch Ridge grad Sarina Scandaliato helping with the 14U and 16U teams.

Klassen’s former players also come back often to work out with his present team.

Taylor Thompson, a standout at The Gregory School who is now at Concordia University, and former Cienega star Lauren Green, who will be a freshman at Long Beach State, practiced with the Rattlers last week. They played on the 17U team last summer.

“It’s a big family,” Klassen said. “People come back. When that happens, I think you have something special. Players come back, they want to coach. They come back, they want to practice. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about wins or losses.”

Catalina Foothills senior point guard Emily Chua is a three-year Rattlers veteran who is playing primarily on the 17U team this summer after playing on both the 16U and 17U teams last year.

Chua is one of five high school seniors on the team, and she is one of the most experienced in Klassen’s system with the Rattlers. She echoed what a lot of her teammates told me in a recent interview session — a family atmosphere exists unlike anything they’ve experienced with other teams, especially club teams.

“Previous clubs I’ve been on or other places, I don’t think being a team player is as emphasized as it is here,” Chua said. “This is clearly a family with every team that plays here.”

In terms of Klassen’s aggressive yet compassionate coaching style, Chua said, “He grooms us to be leaders no matter what role is on the team. Everybody has to be a leader, everybody has to participate and that definitely translates on to the court.

“If girls ask, ‘Where can I play to get better to improve my skills?’, I always tell them there’s not many club teams in Tucson, but this is definitely the place to be. It’s a place you not only grow as a player but as a person.”

Another recurring theme with the Rattlers’ program: local coaches are pushing their top players to join with the hopes of improving their teams come November.

Tucson Rattlers practices are intense but also informational led by coach Chris Klassen (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Ironwood Ridge coach Ken Leikem is certainly a believer in Klassen in this aspect. He has three of his standouts playing for the Rattlers’ 17U team — senior point guard Caroline Finster and junior forwards Bella Hamel and Makayla Holthaus.

“He loves it that we’re playing on this team,” Hamel said about Leikem. “He expects us to win state now because there are three of us on this team. We’re getting better and he sees some improvement.”

Makayla is the daughter of the Pima head coach who is devoting her career now to hoops after spending her recent summers on club soccer teams.

“I am looking forward to seeing how big this really is,” Makayla said. “This is eye opening being it is my first season. I am also excited to spend time with my team because I love each and every girl on my team.

“We all have fun together. We all get along really well together. Even if it is a hard practice we will be there for each other.”

That’s another theme: Thorough, high-energy, intense practices that last two to three hours. He prints a detailed typed practice plan each day that would make NBA and WNBA coaches envious.

On a printout last week for his team, Klassen included the quote, “Don’t join an easy crowd; you won’t grow. Go where expectations and the demands to perform are high.”

Among the activities: Pre-practice, circle shooting (from one station on the court to the next constantly), three-lane rush (ball does not hit the floor stressing communication), defensive drills, motion plays, instituting new plays, live scrimmage and a wrap up.

Marana coach Tory Perez is also benefiting from post player Bella Muscoreil and guard Antoinette (“Andy”) Audiss training with the Rattlers this summer.

“(Perez) tries to stay on pace with him,” Muscoreil said of Klassen. “He came to one of the practices and saw how much he needs to step up his game. He definitely wants us to win state. He points out we need to get that extra work.

“Everything is more aggressive and everything is harder to do now (at Marana).”

The will to improve is obviously ingrained in Klassen’s players. Some of the players, most notably Pueblo senior guard Summer Fox, often ask Klassen to keep Pima’s gym open one hour after practice to work on their shooting.

Klassen coaches with a purpose in mind for everything, including directing his players in practice and in games with the mindset of what college coaches are looking for, not if he can pull out all stops for a win, sacrificing development for all so that only a few can prosper.

“We tell our players, ‘We want to get your school paid for while you still can play basketball.’ The kids leave here with the Rattlers college ready,” Klassen said. “We teach them proper defense. We don’t play zone hardly ever unless we’re trying to protect the foul. College coaches appreciate that and that’s why they follow us.

“They know that our kids are going to be skill-driven and they’re going to be dedicated. They’re going to be devoted to a program and to being good teammates. We don’t let selfish people in our program with players or with parents. It’s a big family atmosphere and it shows.”

The Klassen’s daughter, Calie, is old enough now to be part of the Rattlers after being an infant when it all started 10 years ago. She plays on the 12U team.

* * * * *

Tucson Rattlers working on a defensive drill (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Klassen’s 17U team that is playing in Chicago is not as star-studded as last year’s team that included Thompson, Green and budding prospect Kiya Dorroh, a Sabino sophomore who is now playing in the summer for the Cal Swish 17U team.

Former Catalina Foothills forward Audrey Nicholson (Boston University) and Ironwood Ridge guard Natalie Bartle (Colorado Mesa) have also moved on with college scholarships.

“Last year, we had a lot of DI athletic girls,” Klassen said. “This year, we’re younger. We’re more structured. We still run and gun but we have a little more structure this year just because that’s the type of team I have.”

Chris and Katie Klassen with their kids Calie and Trey (Klassen photo)

He says Tanque Verde senior forward Nikya Orange “is a monster around the high post and low post area. We have a lot of sets to get her the ball and use her skills.”

“Muscoreil is all of 6-3 and just a house and she can shoot the 3. We pick and pop with her. We get her out to the wing and people aren’t usually guarding a person with that kind of size out there but she is hitting 3’s and doing really good.

“Our guards are really solid. Caroline, Summer, Andy and Emily — those four are really good ball handlers who can attack off the dribble and can hit the 3 and play defense. (Tanque Verde’s) Emma Morris is a knock-down shooter, a straight shooting guard. We can penetrate and kick out to her and run some sets, stuff like that.

“Bella Hamel is probably one of the most talented kids that we have. She’s a lot like the players we have in the past who can play inside and out. She’s strong enough to post up, quick enough to guard all spots. She can also stretch the floor and hit the 3.

“We have a lot of great pieces. It’s exciting to get ready for July and attack these three tournaments (Las Vegas and Anaheim stops are included). I can play 10 players without blinking; there’s no real weakness and they are all mirror images of each other. It’s a very balanced, well-oiled team. Nobody’s scoring 40. They are all around 8 to 12 points each. Every other game somebody will be a leading scorer but everybody’s right there.”

* * * * *

Here are some of the Rattlers’ 17U and 16U team members:

17U TEAM

Antoinette “Andy” Audiss

Marana High School

Guard, 5-8, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “When I get back from school ball, playing with the Rattlers helps me transition back to good habits. It helps keep me in condition. It also improves my low skills I don’t normally work on. (Klassen) knows exactly what I need to practice on to get better.”

Emily Chua

Catalina Foothills High School

Guard, 5-6, Sr.

Rattlers’ impact: “Coach Klassen grooms us to be leaders no matter what role is on the team. Everybody has to be a leader. Everybody has to participate and that definitely translates on to the court.”

Bella Hamel

Ironwood Ridge High School

Forward, 5-10, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “The fact I have this opportunity is beyond me. It’s a privilege to be on this team. The fact that we’re going to the Nike Tournament of Champions (in Chicago) is awesome. I’m just so thankful. I’m happy. All the college coaches will be there. It’s the best way for us to get looked at.”

Caroline Finster

Ironwood Ridge High School

Guard, 5-6, Sr.

Rattlers’ impact: “I’m looking forward to experiencing much better players and making myself better and my teammates better. I definitely practice harder and try to make everybody else around me better.”

Makayla Holthaus

Ironwood Ridge High School

Forward, 5-11, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “I love each and every girl on my team. We all have fun together. We all get along really well together. Even if it is hard practice we will be there for each other.”

Emma Morris

Tanque Verde High School

Guard, 5-8, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “Playing in Chicago, it’s crazy. It’s the biggest tournament in the country. The teams are a lot better and the intensity is at a much higher level. It makes it easier to come back here and play high school teams. It gets us a lot better for the high school season.”

Bella Muscoreil

Marana High School

Center, 6-3, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “I’ve improved so much. The first tryout day (three years ago) I couldn’t run and I couldn’t dribble without my eyes up. Now I’m taking the ball down the court and stuff. Everything is more aggressive (than high school hoops) and everything is harder to do.”

Nikya Orange

Tanque Verde High School

Forward, 5-9, Sr.

Rattlers’ impact: “Considering I could not even dribble when I was a freshman, playing with the Rattlers is pretty big. I’m going from that to averaging 19 points a game. If I didn’t join, I probably would not have the opportunities I have today. I definitely would not have the skills I do today. My whole mind changed when I joined the Rattlers team. Playing basketball 24-7 has changed me instead of when I thought going to practice at school was everything.”

Summer Fox

Pueblo High School

Guard, 5-6, Sr.

Rattlers’ impact: “It’s definitely made me a better player just because (Klassen) challenges me to do more things. The competition is way higher than high school. We’re playing big-time teams. Playing on this team pushes you to a great level. My mindset is different. I just want to be the best that I can be. I want to try to go somewhere.”

16U TEAM

Bryn Callie

Catalina Foothills High School

Guard, 5-6, Jr.

Rattlers’ impact: “They do a really good job both coaching us and teaching us really hard. They won’t let us settle for mediocrity and not working our hardest. I think my play has gotten a lot more controlled. I do a lot better handling the ball under pressure. I’m more confident with my shooting.”

Tamia Clardy

Tucson High School

Guard, 5-4, Fr.

Rattlers’ impact: “I am much better than when I started — my defense, shooting, in every which way. They made me grow. When I run, I used to get tired. Now I can just go, go, go.”

Kadie Healy

Sabino High School

Guard, 5-8, Fr.

Rattlers’ impact: “It helps me a lot to get better. It’s really fun. I talk more. I communicate more. It’s made me get stronger. It’s more serious here (than high school). You get noticed more. That’s why we came here.”

Mercedez Romney

Salpointe Catholic High School

Guard, 5-6, Soph.

Rattlers’ impact: “Coach Klassen has been very encouraging of getting to college. He helps you get there and by making you work on your skill sets. He does a really good job of getting you ready. My confidence, I struggled with on other teams. Coach Klassen has helped me with my confidence and has has helped me become better as a player. ”


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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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