The three Whatcom County girls basketball teams are facing very different challenges as they enter the Class 1A state tournament in the Yakima SunDome.
Meridian and Nooksack Valley face the pressure of starting the tournament with loser-out contests on Wednesday, March 4.
The Trojans, who at No.15 are the lowest seed still in the tournament, will take on seventh-seed Annie Wright and super scorer Julianna Walker at 5:30 p.m. The eighth-seeded Pioneers will face ninth-seed Zillah and its hostile home crowd at 9 p.m.
Should the Pioneers and Trojans win, their challenges will get even greater as they would face the top two seeds on Thursday.
Meridian would take on No.1-ranked and undefeated Cashmere and its superstar Hailey Van Lith. Nooksack Valley would run into county rival and No.2-ranked Lynden Christian.
For the Lyncs, the challenge is two-fold: embracing the pressure of being the only team mentioned in the same breath as Cashmere, and using the disappointment of coming close but not winning the state title last year, when LC fell to La Salle in the championship game.
Lynden Christian does get a bye into the quarterfinal matchup with either Nooksack Valley or Zillah on Thursday at 9 p.m.
Here’s a look at all three teams and the 1A girls state tournament:
Record: 16-13 (#15 seed)
Starters: Madeline Bowler, G, Jr., 5-9; Kayla Aalpoel, G, So., 5-8; Finnley Claeys, G, So., 5-9; Ellie DeWaard, G, So., 5-11; Skyleigh James, P, So., 5-10.
Reserves: Maris Baklund, G, Fr., 5-5; Brynn Neal, G, Jr., 5-9; Amanda Schleimer, G, Sr., 5-9; Emilee Swanson, G, Fr., 5-5; Kadance Blankers, G, So., 5-4; Avery Neal, G, Fr., 5-7.
Team preview: The four sophomore starters are starting to play with more confidence, and with “old-timers” Bowler and Schleimer providing leadership, Meridian has been playing better than its record indicates. James gives them an inside presence and Claeys and Aalpoel lead a deep group of athletic defenders.
State outlook: They don’t have any stars, they don’t have a great record, and nobody is giving them a chance. Yet when the chips are down and they are facing elimination, the Trojans somehow find a way to win. With Cashmere in the way, it will be tough to reach the semis, but a trophy is not out of the question.
Coach Mark Gilmore: “There are two teams at the top right now — LC and Cashmere,. It’ll take a bad night by either one of them and a great night by somebody else to knock them out. There are five or six or seven teams after that. We are young as a team, but we’re starting to come together, use each other, starting to jell.”
Nooksack Valley Pioneers
Record: 20-7 (#8 seed)
Starters: Kora Larsen, G, Sr., 5-9; Tehya Moore, G, So., 5-3; Maya Galley, G, Jr., 5-8; McKenna Wichers, F, So. 5-10; Jenna Compton, F, Jr., 5-8.
Reserves: Hallie Kamphouse, G, Fr., 5-9; Ellie Van Berkum, G, So., 5-5; Renae Hoekema, F, So., 5-7; Taylor Lentz, F, Fr., 6-0.
Team preview: The Pioneers have all the pieces — a leader in Larsen, an inside game with Wichers and Compton, runners and gunners including 3-point specialist Kamphouse. Nooksack Valley also plays the rugged Whatcom County-style defense that seems to frustrate other teams at state. The key will be coming up with enough offense and not being intimidated by their first state experience.
State outlook: Until getting run over by Cashmere and the Van Lith Express in regionals, the Pioneers had been playing well. It’s hard to believe that with only one senior, Nooksack Valley has won 20 games and is looking to bring home some state hardware. And don’t forget: The Pioneers gave the Lyncs all they could handle in their regular-season meeting, so anything is possible.
Coach Shane Wichers: “We’re playing good basketball right now, (and) that’s the goal, playing the best basketball at the end. I feel every year it takes time to adjust into roles, trust each other, and they are starting to feel confident with what we’re doing.”
Lynden Christian Lyncs
Record: 24-1 (#2 seed)
Starters: Riley Dykstra, G, Sr., 5-10; Liv Mellema, F, Sr., 5-11; Kiley Roetcisoender, G, Jr., 5-7; Emily Mellema, G, Jr., 5-10; Lexi Hernandez, F, Jr., 6-0.
Reserves: Libby Stump, G, So., 5-7; Demi Dykstra, G, Fr., 5-5; Paige TeVelde, G, Jr., 5-7; Lexi Kaptein, F, So., 5-10; Kenadi Fay, F, Jr., 5-10; Alli VanKooten, F, So., 5-10; Charley Dykstra, G, So., 5-7.
Team preview: Although Dykstra is clearly all-state caliber, the Lyncs truly are a complete team that doesn’t depend on any one player. They are tall, talented and deep, and their top nine can all score and, of course, play Lynden Christian-style defense. And with their only loss coming in a close game to the undefeated and No.1-ranked Class 4A team, the Lyncs aren’t intimidated by anyone.
State outlook: Any other year, the Lyncs would be the state favorite. But this year everyone wants to crown Van Lith and Cashmere even before a game is played in the SunDome. That may happen and LC still has to beat two pretty good teams to get to the finals, but if there is one team that can stop the Cashmere coronation, it’s Lynden Christian.
Coach Brady Bomber: “Cashmere is clearly the favorite. They have some really impressive wins. But there’s some parity within the tournament, and you never know who’s going to get hot. If we play our best, we can be in the mix.”
Class 1A Girls State Tournament
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4
#14 Montesano vs. King’s, 3:45 p.m. (loser out)
#15 Meridian vs. #7 Annie Wright, 5:30 p.m. (loser out)
#12 Elma vs. #4 Freeman, 7:15 p.m. (loser out)
#9 Zillah vs. #8 Nooksack Valley, 9 p.m. (loser out)
THURSDAY, MARCH 5
#5 La Salle vs. Montesano-King’s winner, 3:45 p.m.
#1 Cashmere vs. Meridian-Annie Wright winner, 5:30 p.m.
#3 Warden vs. Elma-Freeman winner, 7:15 p.m.
#2 Lynden Christian vs. Zillah-Nooksack Valley winner, 9 p.m.
FRIDAY, MARCH 6
Consolation game, 12:15 p.m. (loser out)
Consolation games, 2 p.m. (loser out)
Semifinal, 7:15 p.m.
Semifinal, 9 p.m.
SATURDAY, MARCH 7
Consolation game, 9:30 a.m. (winner fourth, loser sixth)
Consolation game, 1 p.m. (winner third, loser fifth)
Championship game, 9 p.m. (winner first, loser second)
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.