After finishing sixth in the state last season and returning a solid corps of talented athletes, the Elma Eagles had every reason to believe they could compete, and even win a state title.
But as the season progressed that dream looked to be slipping away as the Eagles, hampered with multiple injuries, never fully regained the form that took them to last season’s state tournament.
The Eagles’ frustrations seemed to culminate in a 49-45 loss to arch-rival Montesano on Jan. 21 on the Eagles’ home court, putting Monte in the driver’s seat for a league title and Elma on the outside looking in.
On Friday evening at Montesano’s Bo Griffin Memorial Gymnasium, Elma had a chance to return the gesture … and did they ever.
Elma looked like the Eagles of old in using a huge first half-run then holding on late to defeat Montesano 60-52.
Better yet for the Eagles, based on the point differential in their head-to-head matchups, Elma clinched a share of the league title with Monte and will be the 1A Evergreen League No. 1 seed heading into the district playoffs.
“This means so much to me right now that I might cry,” said an ecstatic Jalyn Sackrider, Elma all-state center who scored 27 points in the game. “We haven’t beat Monte on their court in the last three years. To beat them my senior year on their court is the best feeling in the world.”
Sackrider and fellow Elma senior Quin Mikel did the bulk of the damage to Monte in the first half. Sackrider got off to a hot start by scoring 10 points in the first quarter as the Eagles took an 18-13 lead into the second frame.
Elma (14-6 overall, 7-1 Evergreen 1A) then reminded everyone just how good they can be, using a stifling pressure defense and quick-hitting transition offense to open up a big lead on Monte (11-8, 6-1). Leading 22-17 with a little less than four minutes left in the half, Elma, or should we say, Quin Mikel, went on a statement-making run.
After Elma guard Jillian Bieker hit the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity, Mikel scored six straight points in a multitude of ways — on a jump shot, a defense-splitting drive through the lane and a pair of free throws to push Elma’s lead out to 29-17 with 1:17 left in the second quarter.
But Mikel wasn’t done. After Sackrider grabbed a deflection and scored on a layup with 53 seconds left, Mikel capitalized on Elma’s next possession by burying a three to give Elma a 17-point lead by halftime.
Meanwhile, Montesano struggled against Elma’s defense, turning the ball over against the pressure perimeter defense of Bieker and Kaelyn Burgher while Sackrider, Kali Rambo and company limited Monte to one shot by cleaning up the glass.
The Bulldogs scored just six points in the quarter, putting an end to Elma’s 12-point run when Jaiden King scored on a fast-break layup to cut the Eagles’ lead to 34-17 at halftime.
But fortunes fared no better for Monte after the break. After Monte freshman McKynnlie Dalan hit a 3-pointer to open the quarter, Elma went on a 9-0 run, capped by a Mikel 3-pointer to push Elma’s lead out to 43-22 with 5:41 left in the third.
Monte was not about to lay down, however, and the Bulldogs began the long process of chipping away at the lead. Montesano’s Zoe Hutchings scored in the paint and was followed by five straight points from Paige Lisherness to cut Elma’s lead to 51-37 with 30 seconds left in the third.
But Sackrider drilled a straight-away 3-pointer to give Elma a comfortable 54-37 lead heading to the fourth quarter.
Then Monte made its move.
With renewed energy, the Bulldogs scored the first 11 points of the quarter to get the crowd back in the game. Monte cut Elma’s lead to 54-48 on a Hutchings offensive rebound and putback with 3:55 left in the game.
But Elma temporarily quieted the crowd when Bieker slashed in for an offensive rebound and putback of her own on the next possession.
Monte guard Cassadie Golding went 2-for-4 from the free-throw line the next two trips down the court as Elma turnovers started to take a toll on the Eagles’ once seemingly insurmountable lead.
But as they had done in their run at state last season and again on Friday night, Mikel and Sackrider proved to be prime-time players down the stretch.
Mikel hit a key jumper to give Elma a 58-50 lead at the 2:15 mark and, after Golding hit a jump shot herself, Sackrider scored on the inside with 48 seconds left to keep Monte at arm’s length at 60-52.
The Eagles were able to hold on to the ball and keep Monte off the scoreboard to close out the all-important victory.
Elma claimed the No. 1 seed due to point-differential. Monte’s win over the Eagles in January being by four points while the Eagles won on Friday by eight.
Bieker added 11 points for Elma.
Dalan and Lisherness led Monte with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
After a season that began with so much promise and saw so many struggles, Friday’s victory was particularly gratifying for an Elma team that’s finally starting to show the form that made them state-title contenders.
“We’ve been struggling to find how we clicked last year,” said Mikel, who scored 18 points in the contest. “We clicked (in Tuesday’s win against Forks) and that’s when it started and it carried on to this game. … It was very emotional. I wasn’t expecting it to be that emotional. I wasn’t expecting to cry but I did. I don’t know why, it just kind of happened. But it felt good.”
The emotions were understandable considering the struggles Elma has gone through this season. The key for Elma head coach Lisa Johnson was to get back to what Elma does best.
“We came out and were going after every board and valuing every possession,” she said before providing her thoughts on another top league finish. “We’ve been working so hard to get here. … This really is what this team is about. They’re awesome.”
While the loss was a tough one for Monte to swallow.
“Elma came out and crashed the boards and we weren’t running our plays and that really killed us,” Hutchings said. “(Coach) told us that we just need to run our plays, slow it down and be calm. We changed our defense a little and that helped.”
“We just weren’t doing the things we needed to do,” Monte head coach Mark Mansfield said. “We looked slow on defense and weren’t moving as good offensively and couldn’t get into what we wanted to run. … It kind of snowballs because Elma played well.”
Despite the loss, Monte, a much younger team than Elma with just one senior (Hutchings) and seven freshman on the roster, feels it learned much from Friday’s game that it can take into its regular-season finale at Forks and into the postseason.
“I think early in the season, one of our buzzwords was “Believe.” … We kept harping on that and what I told them at the half and after the game was that we haven’t talked about that in awhile. We’ve got to believe that we can play with teams like Elma. They’re not going to hand us anything, we’re going to have to earn it. The girls buckled down and did a nice job. … We ran out of time but we kept battling right to the end.”