In its final Class 2B boys basketball appearance before dropping to the 1B classification next season, Willapa Valley enjoyed a memorable state tournament.
The Vikings upended top-seeded Liberty of Spangle in the quarterfinals last week before settling for a fifth-place state trophy.
An unlikely key to that accomplishment was agreeing to play a game that many — including yours truly — believed was unnecessary.
Willapa Valley tied Northwest Christian for second place, behind state power Life Christian Academy, in the 2B Pacific League. Although both teams were guaranteed district berths, they opted to playoff the tie on a neutral court at Ocosta High School.
While players, coaches and fans usually are gung-ho for settling such matters on the court, history has demonstrated that the risks (potential injuries, ejections, fatigue) of playing seeding games often outweigh the rewards.
One such example occurred in 1983, when reigning state Class 2A champion Aberdeen and a very good Hoquiam team tied for the Black Hills League title. A playoff game was scheduled for Aberdeen’s Sam Benn Gym on the Saturday following the end of league play.
The playoff game was a financial and (at least from Aberdeen’s standpoint) artistic success, as a capacity crowd witnessed a come-from-behind Bobcat victory. But, emotionally drained by the intensity of the contest, the Grizzlies bowed out quickly at district. Aberdeen also lost its district opener and wound up falling in the opening round of regionals.
The circumstances for the Willapa Valley-Northwest Christian playoff admittedly were different.
One observer at Ocosta asserted this playoff was necessary, if only to keep the winner out of Life Christian’s half of the district bracket. The wisdom of that logic became evident when Life Christian thumped Willapa Valley, 65-42, in the state semifinals.
But there were other factors that encouraged a playoff. Due to a prolonged gap between the end of the regular season and the opening of district play, the seeding game kept both teams sharp.
Most important of all was that, by beating NWC (57-47), the Vikings received a first-round bye at district. That meant they could lose two of their first three district contests and still remain alive to claim the fifth and final regional berth.
Northwest Christian also went 1-2 in its first three district games — and was eliminated from postseason competition.
The playoff game at Ocosta was one of three Willapa Valley postseason games (all wins, by the way) that I witnessed. I was impressed by the Vikings’ defense, ball movement and relative scoring balance in those contests.
While junior Logan Walker represented Valley’s primary offensive weapon, the remainder of the starting lineup also made significant contributions at district and regionals.
The Vikings, however, were shy on size and depth, as coach Jay Pearson essentially utilized a six-player rotation in the games I saw. Those shortcomings tend to loom large while playing state contests on four consecutive days. In any event, Willapa Valley followed the upset of Liberty with two decisive losses.
Willapa Harbor fans received a very indirect payback of sorts for the semifinal loss to Life Christian when LCA fell to Brewster in the state championship game.
Brewster is coached by Michael Taylor, the son of South Bend alum Tim Taylor. One of the greatest Twin Harbors high school players of the past 50 years, Tim Taylor also forged a Hall of Fame coaching career at Brewster. Michael succeeded his dad as the North Central Washington school’s head coach this season.
Regionals and state
The good news for Twin Harbors’ basketball teams was that the law of averages finally worked in their favor at regionals.
After years of being on the short end of brutal match-ups, area clubs at last benefited from favorable regional draws. Four of the five qualifiers (Elma’s and Montesano’s girls and Willapa Valley’s and Taholah’s boys) won their regional games to punch their tickets to state.
The bad news that those tickets guaranteed them just one state contest, as all landed in the single-elimination first round of the two-tiered state tourneys. Only Willapa Valley survived the loser-out opening round.
Washington Interscholastic Activities Association leaders have been adamant in their opposition to reinstating the traditional 16-team state tournaments. And most observers agree that the current format (regional pairings determined by RPI rankings, followed by 12-team state tournaments) represent an improvement over the previous eight-team state tourneys.
But the WIAA’s argument that state basketball consolation games are meaningless, money-losing affairs would be easier to swallow if full sets of consolation contests aren’t scheduled in other sports such as softball, volleyball and wrestling.
This year, it was a shame that a senior-laden Elma girls team didn’t receive the opportunity to put an exclamation point on a memorable era with a second successive state trophy. Montesano’s girls and Taholah’s boys — young teams that figure to return to state soon — could have used additional tournament experience.
The current one-and-sometimes-done state format is a little like a musician fulfilling a lifelong ambition to perform at Carnegie Hall — and being yanked off the stage after playing a few notes.
Calm or not?
When I first began writing sports for the University of Washington’s student newspaper, I was cautioned by an adviser to avoid the use of term “calmly.” Readers see that a lot, as in “Russell Wilson calmly drove the Seahawks downfield for the winning touchdown.”
“You don’t know how nervous (the athlete) is,” the adviser emphasized.
I remembered that admonition while witnessing the dramatic climax to the Elma-Deer Park regional 1A girls basketball game.
With the score tied at 38 and less than 90 seconds remaining, Elma’s Jillian Bieker stole the ball at about midcourt and was fouled while attempting a go-ahead layup. The obvious foul call, incidentally, was whistled by veteran Grays Harbor ref Rod Bannish from the Willapa Harbor area, who is retiring following a 30-year officiating career.
Bieker shot an air ball on her first free-throw attempt — a development that must have been unsettling if not embarrassing.
Without the benefit of a timeout, however, she swished the second shot. That point proved the difference in Elma’s 39-38 win.