When Kobe Elsner, Clayton Whitman and their elementary school buddies started a basketball team, it was just to have fun playing hoops together. Now, almost a decade later, the Lynden Class of 2019 is still having fun … as the boys take aim at their second straight 2A state championship.
“Our senior class is really, really close,” said Elsner, one of 10 seniors on the 12-player roster. “I love all these guys, and that helps on the court. We’re a fun group, but when it’s time to lock in and focus, we do it.”
The Lions sure focused last season, when they won 10 of their last 11 games on the way to claiming the school’s ninth boys basketball state title. It was something they’d dreamt about since most of them began playing together in the fourth grade on the Lynden Tractors team (sponsored by John Deere, of course).
“When we were little, we’d go to these big tournaments and they’d say, ‘Who are these guys?’” Elsner said, laughing at the memory of the small-town country boys playing — and beating — the big city boys. “Now it seems everyone knows about Lynden basketball. It helps that LC (Lynden Christian, the defending 1A state champion) is good, too.”
UPCOMING: You can see the Lions when they host 3A boys basketball power O’Dea on Saturday, Dec. 22, in Jake Maberry Gym. The 6 p.m. game will be preceded by the Lynden-Bellevue girls basketball contest at 4:30 p.m.
While many of the Lynden seniors are Lynden born and raised, the group has come together over time. The Elsners moved to Lynden when Kobe was in first grade. James Marsh and Jacob Kettels came in middle school, and Christian Zamora transferred in as a freshman.
Yet they all have one thing in common: They like each other. Make that two things: They all are really good at basketball.
“All of us are best friends,” said Whitman, who along with Zamora earned all-tournament honors at state last year. “That’s special, and not just because we’re good at basketball. The funnest parts are the bus rides and hanging out in the hotels.”
Kobe’s dad, Lynden assistant coach Mike Elsner, shared a story of how close the senior boys are. When several of them were playing in the football state playoffs, the ones who only played basketball asked head coach Brian Roper if they could move their basketball practice to 6 a.m.
6 a.m.? Why? So that they could have time to go watch their buddies play football (and eventually reach the state championship game in that sport, too).
“They play for each other; they are happy for each other,” said the elder Elsner, who helped organize and coach those early youth teams along with several of the other fathers. “We’re in an era of ‘it’s about me,’ and they appreciate the success the others have.
“They’re competitive, but they are playful. And when they are having fun, they are pretty good (at basketball).”
Roper has seen a lot of great classes come through Lynden during his 14 years, and he’s coached a lot of great teams, including the state championship squads of 2007 and 2012. But as he watched this group grow up, he knew they’d be special.
“I could tell it was a bunch of guys who want to play basketball, who love to be in the gym,” said Roper. “And they’re friends first and foremost. They’re going to be friends when they’re adults. They just enjoy each other, which transcends sports.”
Of course, during basketball season, it’s all about sports, and everyone expects them to win every game by 30 points and bring home another state championship trophy. That’s just the expectations Lynden fans have when it comes to their teams, and for good reason.
Both Roper and the Mike Elsner understand those expectations and know the team has its eyes set on winning state. But the two have played and coached through many decades of high school basketball, and they know how difficult it is to win a state title, even with 10 seniors returning from a state championship team.
That’s why they are challenging the players to focus on the journey not the final goal.
“Last year was great, but this is this year,” said coach Elsner. “You don’t get any points (this year) for winning last year. The goal is to recapture the joy, and let the pressure go away. They are a happy group, and we want them to find their happy place.”
Roper agreed: “We have the potential to win another (state title), but we don’t want that to define us. We want these boys to help others, to invest in young people, to represent our school, our families, our community.
“If we are only successful if we win state, that’s short-sighted. The more important thing is we want them to enjoy the journey; we want them to enjoy each other.”
Perhaps because he was hurt at the beginning of last season and almost missed out on the exciting playoff run, Whitman offers a mature perspective on how fleeting the special experience is that he and his classmates are sharing.
“When we were younger, the (high school) seniors would tell us to embrace the moment, so I was conscious of it,” he said. “I know it (our careers) only goes for so long, and high school goes fast.
“And if we don’t win (state) this year, it will sting. But we’ll know what we’ve done was amazing.”
Young Elsner echoed that thought: “Our goal is to win the whole thing, but if we don’t, we’ll always have the memories of each other. And those memories will last forever.”