Most high school basketball coaches in Washington agree on something when it comes to the WIAA state tournaments.
You don’t really know how to play in the Tacoma Dome (4A/3A), Yakima SunDome (2A/1A) or Spokane Arena (2B/1B) without experiencing it first.
There are many lessons to be learned, and five coaches – one from each classification – of state-contending girls programs shared what they’ve learned about surviving and succeeding in that atmosphere.
The criteria for the selection process of these programs is three-fold:
* School has never won a state girls championship.
* Program has made multiple state-tournament appearances over the past decade, including at least back-to-back trips.
* Team has made at least one deep run – the state semifinals or better.
CLASS 4A WOODINVILLE: ‘BEING THERE JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH … YOU WANT MORE’
Before the start of every season, the Woodinville High School girls construct their “Vision Board.”
Players will bring cut-out images of two or three things they want to see happen in that season. This year, one girl brought a photo of 2 percent milk, representing that she wanted to get 2 percent better every day in practice. Another girl brought a hard hat, signifying she wanted to be a hard worker in team workouts.
And, as always, a few girls cut out a picture of the Tacoma Dome – the final-destination stop of the 4A tournament.
“For each kid, it is a new experience,” Falcons girls coach Scott Bullock said. “The first time we got there as a team (in 2006), we were just happy to be there. But as each year goes by, we are like, ‘Let’s not just be happy to get here, let’s try to get something out of this.'”
In 4A KingCo MVP Mia Hughes’ ninth-grade season in 2018, the Falcons won three games in Tacoma, and advanced to the 4A title game, losing to Central Valley.
Hughes is the elder statesman of another young but talented group this time around.
“We are not a veteran team, but they are veteran in the sense theyâ€™ve been here before,” Bullock said. “Iâ€™d like to say it is all business, but they are enjoying the whole experience.”
3A ARLINGTON: ‘THING WE’VE LEARNED THE MOST IS IT IS PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY EXHAUSTING’
Eagles girls coach Joe Marsh knows he was spoiled early on.
In just his second season in 2015-16, his team was the tournament upstart by defeating Lincoln of Tacoma and Kamiakin to reach the 3A championship game, losing to Bellevue.
“Having that (Tacoma) Dome experience – that part separate of playing four basketball against the best teams – is the type of thing you have to go through one time to feel comfortable,” Marsh said. “I do feel it is a big deal.”
He must have, because for a young Arlington team last season, his primary goal was just to play one state game in Tacoma, just to get a feel for it.
Now his best players are primarily juniors (Hailey Hiatt, Josie Stupey, Makenzie Gage) and sophomores (Keira Marsh, Hannah Rork) – and one big ninth-grade presence in Jenna Villa. They wear pre-game T-shirts that say, “#EndGoal.”
“There is so much attention at this tournament, and it brings pressure. Then you have to step out on the floor,” Marsh said. “Last year was big for this group. Now we can focus on winning.”
2A WHITE RIVER: ‘WE’VE BEEN THERE FOR YEARS AND YEARS, AND WE DO TREAT IT LIKE A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE’
There is a running joke around the Hornets at state: When you step on the floor, don’t trip.
That is because in one of White River girls coach Chris Gibson’s first experiences at the state championships, one of his players was so nervous during pre-game introductions, she stumbled and face-planted into the hardwood.
That is just one of the many variables girls cannot anticipate until they play in a state-tournament game.
“That first bounce, it has a hollow sound – and a funny feel to it,” Gibson said. “There are other noises you have to black out.”
“On some of the (state-tournament) courts we’ve played on, we’ve had the NBA 3-point line, or college 3-point line there, and you just see teams run their sets 2-3 feet higher than they normally do, and it changes the passing angles and the post feeds.
“And in the SunDome, the court is longer, so many post players stop at the free-throw line thinking they are near the basket.”
The Hornets have the longest streak in 2A in reaching at least the round of 16 (regionals or state) at 12 consecutive years. They have reached the 2A semifinals twice – in 2012 and 2019.
“Whenever you get to a Dome, it is such a big deal,” Gibson said. “But it isn’t a tactical thing. It’s an emotion thing. Kids are tight. That is why the first pass goes into the bleachers and hits grandma in the head, or the first shot goes 3 feet long.”
1A CASHMERE: ‘BIGGEST THING WE’VE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS IS KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BE WHO YOU ARE’
The Bulldogs have come closer to winning a state title over the past three years than any program in the state – with a pair of runner-up showings (2017, 2018) and last year’s semifinal defeat to La Salle at the SunDome in Yakima.
Now, Cashmere girls coach Brent Darnell brings back star point guard Hailey Van Lith, a McDonald’s All-American and Naismith Award finalist, and an experienced senior group for one more crack at it.
“It is such a wild tournament, and you obviously have the best teams in the state there,” Darnell said. “But every team is different. You might play a team on Thursday that is a ground-and-pound, power basketball team with slow tempo. And the next night, you could face a team like Annie Wright, which you cannot prepare for their style and their pressure.
“It makes winning the whole thing difficult.”
Of course, when you are from a small town, you bring along the extra pressure of representing your community, Darnell said.
After the Bulldogs lost in the 2017 final to Mount Baker, sharp-shooter Grace Hammond – who then was a seldom-used ninth grader – cried uncontrollably in the locker room afterward.
“We were all hurting, but she had not played much, so I wondered, ‘Why was she crying so hard?'” Darnell said. “It’s because it meant so much to her … this whole experience of representing your school, your town and your community.
“For the seniors – Grace Hammond, Grace Erdmann and Hailey (Van Lith) – this is important. They have been so close to winning it without doing it. It makes them pretty hungry. They know they have one more shot.”
‘B’ POMEROY: ‘WE’VE ALWAYS HAD IT PHYSICALLY, BUT WE’VE MISSED OUT ON THE MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL PART’
Much like Cashmere, this is also a program that can play the oh-so-close card the past couple of seasons.
The Pirates have lost to 1B dynasty Colton in the state championship game the past two seasons at the Spokane Arena.
“When these girls went two years ago, it was intense, intimidating and scary,” Pomeroy girls coach Tai Bye said. “And to get to that final game, everything has to fall right.”
Bye said she’s always had the high-level physical talent on her roster to win a state title. But in critical times, especially against Colton, her players have struggled with the mental and emotional side of being in a high-profile game.
“I have girls who have finally reached that mentally-tough stage,” Bye said. “Nothing fazes them anymore.”
Not coincidentally, she has a large group of seniors leading the way in Maddy Dixon, Heidi Heytvelt, Sydney Watko and Alyssa Wolf.
And two weeks ago, the Pirates welcomed back junior point guard Emma Severs, who had been out since last summer with a serious knee injury.
They are also the ones who came up with the team’s “Fight Another Round” slogan – something that is pasted on the back of team T-shirts.
“We’ve done this twice,” Bye said, “and now we want to finish it.”