When Lisa Salsman started playing varsity basketball for Muir High in Pasadena last year, she had the reputation of an outstanding rebounder but not the greatest scorer.
But since the arrival of Mel Sims as coach this season, the 6-2 senior center has become considerably more offensive-minded.
After averaging 11.1 points and 13.3 rebounds as a junior, the 17-year-old is averaging 20.7 points and 18.5 rebounds this season and is regarded as one of the top front-line players in the San Gabriel Valley. She says that with Sims as coach, the offensive improvement was partly out of necessity.
"It's all due to Mel because he tells me to shoot more," she said. "If you don't shoot, you can't score and I'm just shooting a little more than last year."
Salsman's offensive improvement this season has gone hand-in-hand with the success of the Mustangs, who are 21-3 and seeded No. 2 in the CIF 4-A Division playoffs heading into a quarterfinal game against Artesia at 7:30 tonight in Artesia.
Sims says Salsman is a long way from reaching her potential.
"If you ask me to rate her on a scale, I think she is only at about 65% to 70% of her capability, and I think if I had gotten her earlier she'd have more," he said.
Salsman said she was awkward when she started playing: "I started playing when I was in eighth grade. When my dad first saw me play, he thought I had no hope. I didn't play that well at first. But I just stayed with it and it has been worth it."
Salsman started her high school career at Maranatha in Sierra Madre as one of one of the top freshman.
And then she decided to transfer to Muir.
"It was basically because it's such a small school (Maranatha) and the basketball isn't as good there," she said. "I had just been in private schools since I was in kindergarten and I just felt it was time for a change. So I wanted to go to a public school."
Salsman expected to play for the Muir varsity as a sophomore and played with the Mustangs in summer league.
"I was playing in the Watts Summer Games and I was starting and then right before the Marshall game (the regular-season opener for 1986-87) they told me that I couldn't play because the correct paper work hadn't been filed with the CIF in time," she said.
"It was like 5 minutes before the start of the game and we were in the locker room and the coach (Archie Newton) said, 'I have bad news for you' "
So Salsman spent the 1986-87 season playing for the junior varsity. She was selected as the team's most valuable player, although she said it wasn't a challenging level of play.
"I remember we beat one team, 75-2. It was really sad because it wasn't that competitive."
She was happy to finally have the opportunity to play for Muir's varsity last season.
"It was an adjustment. We had a lot of JV players but we had only one senior from the previous year (Tasha Bradley). But it was a close team and we clicked."
It ended in disappointment, though. The Mustangs tied with Pasadena for first place in the Pacific League and finished at 17-6, only to lose to Marina, 51-50, in the first round of the 4-A Division playoffs.
Salsman said that with the resignation of Newton, she was concerned about the program heading into this season. But that was before Sims was named coach.
"It was hard (after last season) because we had so many seniors graduate and our coach resigned, so we were scared about what was going to happen," she recalled. "But we found out that Mel was going to be our coach and we were very happy.
"He's the best coach I've ever had. He teaches and he just pulled us together. Without him I don't think we'd be where we are. He's not just a great coach, he's a great person. Everybody improves along the way, but I've improved the most with Mel as a coach."
She improved enough to stamp herself as one of the top college prospects in the valley.
Recruited by many top NCAA Division I programs, Salsman took her five allowable visits to New Mexico State, Fresno State, UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State and the University of San Francisco. But she said it was not a difficult decision to sign with Arizona State.
"I took my five visits, but when I went to Arizona State there was no comparison," Salsman said. "Everyone told me when you find the right school you'll know, and I knew when I went out there."
About the only qualm she had with Arizona State was its distance from her home in Altadena. Salsman, an only child, says she is close to her parents, Jo and Mike.
"It's only an hour away (by air), so if I want to go home I can," she said. "But I just like the environment there. They make you feel at home. They're a real close-knit program and that's what attracted me.
"I wanted to sign early because it takes so much pressure off. I didn't have to worry about who was coming to watch me and just play and I guess I've had an OK season so far."
Sims says she has had more than simply an OK season.
"I coach an all-around game and she runs better, she shoots better and she plays defense better than she did before," he said. "She does everything better. I think Arizona State is going to get a much better player than they ever recruited."
Salsman credits much of her success to her teammates.
"I've improved a lot, but what also makes a person good is the players on the team and we have some great people on this team," she said. "If my shot isn't falling Stacie Gravely can shoot, and if her shot isn't falling, Rose Jong can take over, and our other starters can score too."
But Sims says Salsman has helped herself by working hard: "The thing you notice about Lisa is she has a very good work ethic. She's just a very hard worker and she tries to pass that along to the rest of the team. I nicknamed her Momma Lisa because she tries to help everyone on the court. That's just her nature. You couldn't ask for a girl with a bigger heart."
While Salsman isn't crazy about the nickname, she says she has always had a rapport with her teammates.
"That was the one thing I liked about basketball," she said. "It was unifying and everyone was close. My best friends have always been on the basketball team, and that's the way it is this year."
She said it is her camaraderie with her teammates, not to mention the disappointment of the way last season ended, that has inspired her this year.
"You realize that this is the last chance you're going to get so you know you have to work hard and get as far as you can get, and hopefully we'll play up to our potential," she said.
So far, Salsman and the Mustangs are off to a pretty good start.