Excuse the Lynden boys basketball team if they get that feeling of deja vu all over again.
The two-time defending state champion and top-seeded Lions will kick off the Class 2A state tournament with a regional-round game against No.8 seed Mountlake Terrace on Saturday at noon at Mount Vernon High School.
Yes, the same Mountlake Terrace squad Lynden beat, 58-49, in the district semifinals last week.
“It’s unusual; I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation like this,” said Lynden coach Brian Roper. “I believe it will be a dogfight.
“But we’re super excited to be playing now. I feel like we’re playing better and better. We’ve had good draws and bad draws (in the past), but the draw’s the draw. You have to play good teams somewhere along the line.”
The Lions (21-2) always seem to be playing the best teams because, well, because the Lions often are the best team. In addition to winning the past two state titles, Lynden has placed in the top three at state seven of the past eight years.
Of course, this year it’s an entirely new team, and when we say entirely new, we don’t just mean a year older. Only two players return from last year’s championship team and only one of those saw significant playing time and then only as a reserve.
But those two — senior forward Brock Heppner and junior post Liam Hanenburg — have helped turn a squad of inexperienced varsity players into the top-ranked 2A team in the state. If they handed out a trophy for most improved player, almost every Lion would be in the running.
“I knew we had a chance to be good, but I’ve never been on a team with so many guys who have improved individually as much as they have this year,” said Roper. “Our guys really like each other, and they care about team success more than individual playing time or points.”
Of course, the big test is ahead — starting Saturday against Mountlake Terrace (18-6) — as almost all of the young Lions find themselves under the big lights of a state basketball tournament for the first time. Fortunately for the Lions, many of them have felt that same state pressure in other sports such as football and golf.
“After they won the district (title) game and I sat back and watched them celebrate, I was happy for them to make their own mark,” said Roper. “Last year’s team got a lot of hype and deservedly so. But to see this group have their own journey and do well, that is exciting. Whatever happens from here, we’ll give it our best shot.”
Win or lose Saturday, the Lions are guaranteed a berth in the state tournament in the Yakima SunDome next week.
If they win, they would play on Thursday, March 5, at 5:30 p.m. against the winner of an earlier game between the Toppenish-Clarkston loser and the Prosser-Clover Park winner.
If they lose Saturday, the Lions would play on Wednesday, March 4, at 9 p.m. in a loser-out game against the winner of the regional game between Black Hills and Woodland.
State seeding: #1, No.1 seed out of District 1/2
Starters: Brock Heppner, F, Sr., 6-1; Liam Hanenburg, P, Jr., 6-11; Clay Kochuten, F, Jr., 6-3; Jordan Medcalf, G, So., 6-1; Kaleo Jandoc, G, So., 5-10.
Reserves: Austin Anderson, G, Sr., 5-11; Koby Whitman, G, Jr., 6-0; Harley Vandenberg, P, Sr., 6-5; Elijah Lyons, F, Sr., 6-1; Jordan Elsner, F, Sr., 6-1; Dawson Adams, F, So., 6-0; Ian Jacob, F, Jr., 6-5.
CLASS 2A BOYS STATE TOURNAMENT
Friday, Feb. 28
#11 Selah vs. #14 Renton, 8 p.m., at Davis HS in Yakima
Saturday, Feb. 29
#12 Lakewood vs. #13 Franklin Pierce, 10 a.m., at Mount Vernon
#1 Lynden vs. #8 Mountlake Terrace, noon, at Mount Vernon
#3 North Kitsap vs. #6 Tumwater, 4 p.m., at Mount Tahoma HS in Tacoma
#10 Prosser vs. #15 Clover Park, 4 p.m., at Richland
#2 Toppenish vs. #7 Clarkston, 6 p.m., at Eisenhower HS in Yakima
#4 Lindbergh vs. #5 White River, 6 p.m., at Auburn-Mountainview
#9 Black Hills vs. #16 Woodland, 6 p.m., at Tumwater
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.