Whether the journey started a decade ago, a year ago, or Saturday at 3 p.m., it turned out to be memorable for the Nooksack Valley girls basketball team.
And when the journey ended later Saturday afternoon, the Pioneers had taken their place in the history books by beating Lynden Christian, 43-36, at the Yakima SunDome and winning their first Class 1A state championship.
“This means so much,” said Nooksack Valley junior Lainey Kimball amid the post-game tears and cheers of the Valley faithful. “Since second grade we’ve been waiting for this and preparing our lives for it.”
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The enormity of the accomplishment was not lost on the Pioneers and their fans.
They finished the season 27-1, winning a Northwest Conference title and a District 1 title to go along with the state title. And at each stage, they had to beat their nemesis — two-time defending state champion Lynden Christian.
“This is the best feeling ever, like nothing else,” said junior Devin Coppinger, who now can add state tournament MVP to her all-state resume. “We feel bad for them (the Lyncs). They have such a great team. We had to play our best … and you have to beat the best to be the best.”
Not forgotten by the Pioneers or their fans was the heartbreak of last year’s state final when Nooksack Valley lost to Lynden Christian by one point in the final seconds of overtime.
“Last year hurt and they really wanted it,” said Nooksack Valley coach Shane Wichers of the work his team put in since last March. “They weren’t going to lose it again.”
But after being hyper-focused all year, the top-ranked and tournament favorite Pioneers found themselves facing an underdog team of Lyncs who were looking to beat the odds — and Nooksack Valley — for their third state championship in a row.
And despite losing to the Pioneers by 13 in the regular season and 10 in the district final, these Lyncs weren’t going down without a fight.
So the two best 1A teams in the state unleashed their best defensive efforts and after the first quarter, the score was — if you can believe it — 4-4.
“The first two times we got them pretty good,” said Wichers. “But once we got through the first quarter and it was 4-4, I knew it was going to be a battle to the very end.”
And it was. Every point — no, every possession — was fought over like it would decide the fate of the game … and it almost did. There were 10 ties and 10 lead changes with neither team able to pull away.
How can you tell when a team is assured of victory? When the student section does the traditional “We believe that we will win” cheer. (If you haven’t heard it, you haven’t been to a game in years.) And the Nooksack Valley students finally began the cheer … with 0.8 seconds on the scoreboard.
The two teams did find some offensive rhythm in the second quarter — the halftime score was 22-20 in favor of LC — and after a back-and-forth second half, it was a one-point game again with two minutes to go.
And the final two minutes belonged to the Pioneers. Leading 37-36, they forced two turnovers and forced LC to miss five shots. And when the Lyncs were forced to foul, the ball was always in the hands of the best player in the state — Coppinger.
After hitting a jumper to give Nooksack a three-point lead with 1:30 to go, she made 4 of 5 free throws, the last with 0.8 seconds left to ice the game and give the Pioneers the championship.
“We got some big stops at big times,” said Wichers. “I’m so proud and happy for the girls. I don’t think it has sunk in yet … for sure it hasn’t. But they believed in each other. What will stick in my memory is how much they loved each other.”
In the defensive struggle where both teams were held to their season low in points, Coppinger was the lone offensive star. She had 20 points on 6 of 11 shooting from the field and 8 of 9 from the foul line.
Senior Taylor Lentz had 8 valuable points, Kimball had 7, and junior Tana Hoekema had 6 points and a game-high 10 rebounds the biggest ones coming in the final quarter.
Lost in the purple celebration was the accomplishment of the Lyncs, who graduated four starters from last year’s title team and were expected to be in a rebuilding year. Instead, they finished 25-4 and reached the state finals for the fifth straight time.
“I couldn’t be any more satisfied with our kids,” said Lynden Christian coach Brady Bomber, who has led the Lyncs to four state championships. “We had a lot of doubts at the beginning of the season. But I’m proud of our girls … the way they played and the way they did things.
“But credit to Shane and Nooksack Valley. It was a one-possession game (at the end) and they made a few more plays than we did.”
Sophomore Grace Hintz led Lynden Christian with 10 points despite the constant attention of every Pioneer and for her efforts in Yakima was named to the all-tournament first team. On the second team were Lynden Christian seniors Daisy Poag and Demi Dykstra as well as Nooksack Valley’s Hoekema.
Poag, who managed 9 points on three 3-pointers in Saturday’s defensive battle, was able to see through the tears something more important than winning or losing the game — even the state championship game.
“I’m really proud of our teammates and the seniors,” she said. “It’s sad because it was our last time playing together. I’ll just miss the family.”
Besides Poag and Dykstra, it was the last game for Lynden Christian seniors Alexie Hagen, Taryn Herwerden, Katrin Fay, and Reganne Arnold.
The state champion Pioneers will graduate starters Lentz and Hallie Kamphouse as well as reserve Ella Perry. Which means Nooksack Valley will once again be tabbed as the Class 1A state favorite in 2024.
Will next year be another memorable journey in Yakima for the Pioneers? One of them thinks so.
“Next year?” Coppinger repeated the question. “Oh, we’ll be back.”
Nooksack Valley 43, Lynden Christian 36
Nooksack Valley 4 16 11 12— 43
Lynden Christian 4 18 7 7— 36
Nooksack Valley: Lainey Kimball 7, Hallie Kamphouse 2, Devin Coppinger 20, Tana Hoekema 6, Taylor Lentz 8, Kaylee Anderson, Ella Perry.
Lynden Christian: Alexie Hagen 3, Demi Dykstra 5, Taryn Herwerden, Ella Fritts 3, Grace Hintz 10, Tabitha DeJong 2, Daisy Poag 9, Reganne Arnold 4, Andi Anderson.
CLASS 1A STATE TOURNAMENT
At Yakima Valley SunDome
Wednesday, March 1
#6 Deer Park 53, #11 Zillah 32 (loser out)
#7 Cashmere 34, #15 Annie Wright 31 (loser out)
#4 Montesano 57, #12 Seattle Academy 39 (loser out)
#9 Freeman 44, #8 Bellevue Christian 21 (loser out)
Thursday, March 2
#5 King’s 35, Deer Park 34
#1 Nooksack Valley 53, Cashmere 41
#3 Wapato 64, Montesano 36
#2 Lynden Christian 46, Freeman 40 OT
Friday, March 3
Cashmere 47, Deer Park 45 (loser out)
Freeman 49, Montesano 38 (loser out)
Nooksack Valley 58, King’s 46
Lynden Christian 67, Wapato 51
Saturday, March 4
Cashmere 45, Freeman 36 (winner fourth, loser sixth)
Wapato 65, King’s 53 (winner third, loser fifth)
Nooksack Valley 43, Lynden Christian 36