It was 40 years ago that I attended my first high school state tournament — the 1979 Class A boys tourney in the UPS Fieldhouse — as a young sports reporter for the Bellingham Herald. And I was instantly hooked.
This past week, I had the opportunity to enjoy not one but four great events — the 2019 Class 1A and 2A boys and girls state tournaments in Yakima’s SunDome — as a grizzled old blogger (or whatever they call me) for the Whatcom Hoops website.
And I remember why I got hooked four decades ago.
Enjoying the cheers of joy and the tears of disappointment with the players, coaches and fans of five Whatcom County teams was a privilege and a whole lot of fun.
And just like we used to do after covering state tournaments for the newspaper, it’s time to offer some final thoughts after having a little time to process and reflect on all that we experienced Thursday through Saturday.
ONLY ONE CHAMPION: All five of our teams who made it to Yakima had dreams of hoisting the state championship trophy, but only the Lynden boys team made it a reality by beating Selah to take the 2A state title.
When the top-seeded Lynden Christian boys and Lynden girls both went down in Thursday’s quarterfinals, it was a reminder of how really, really, really difficult it is to win a state championship and how many things have to fall into place.
So even though we county fans expect state championships every year, let’s be grateful when everything works out and it really does happen. And let’s not be critical when things don’t go the way we want and somebody else’s dreams come true.
So, great job, Lions! But great job also to the LC boys and girls, Lynden girls, Meridian girls and let’s not forget the Lummi Nation boys in the 1B state tournament in Spokane.
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE: It was great to hear the songs of my youth still being played by bands — “We Are The Champions,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and my all-time favorite, “25 or 6 to 4.” (If you don’t recognize the song titles, trust me, you’d recognize the tunes from every state tournament the past 40 years.)
But for Whatcom County fans, the trophy presentations had to feel like deja vu all over again.
The Lynden boys won their 10th state title, and Saturday marked the third time the Lions have won back-to-back championships. And the Lynden girls have a tradition of their own, having now brought home trophies eight of the past nine years.
Meanwhile, the Lynden Christian girls were in the state championship game for the 19th time in the past 42 years, which is an incredible 45 percent. (Let that sink in for a minute.) And the LC boys earned their 28th trophy since qualifying for the first time in 1964, which means they’ve placed in half the tournaments.
AND SOME PEOPLE NEVER CHANGE: While Meridian’s Mark Gilmore, Lynden’s Rob Adams and LC’s Roger DeBoer might be coaching veterans (a nice way to say they are old), I can remember watching each of them play in high school — Gilmore and DeBoer for the same schools they coach at and Adams at Blaine. (A not so nice way to say I’m even older.)
Each was a fiery guard who wasn’t the star but whose tough play made their team better. It is no surprise they’ve become successful coaches and that all three of their teams epitomize the motto of the Lynden girls: “Tougher Together.”
And let’s not forget the other two coaches.
Lynden’s Brian Roper likes to deflect the spotlight back to his team and coaching staff, but his Lions have now won four state championships, the same number — and I hope this isn’t sacrilegious to say — as Lynden legend Jake Maberry.
And while LC’s Brady Bomber hasn’t won as many state championships as his predecessor Curt DeHaan — who is the most successful girls coach in state history — Bomber has won two state titles in his first five years, something that DeHaan didn’t do until he’d been 10 years at the helm.
Those coaches and all the rest of our county’s coaches — including Lummi Nation’s Jerome Toby, who also has a state title to his credit — are one of the reasons we’ll continue to see successful teams and outstanding young men and women representing our schools.
BEST QUOTE FROM A COACH: It has been great to get to know all 22 of our local head coaches this season, and the ones at state were very free with their time and always showed class and openness when talking to me.
Each was different, like LC boys coach Roger DeBoer, who not only showed his spiritual side but his reflective side, talking about how basketball can be like a microcosm of life.
When I mentioned that to Lynden girls coach Rob Adams, who is a bit more — how shall we say? — off the cuff, Adams said, “You won’t get quotes like that from me. I don’t even know what microcosm means.”
BEST QUOTE FROM A FAN: After the Lynden Christian girls’ heartbreaking loss in the 1A state title game, the mother of LC’s Isabela and Lexi Hernandez tried to put the Lyncs’ second-place finish in perspective.
Perhaps remembering LC’s incredible state tradition that already includes 12 state championships — two of which she played a big part in — Tanna (Bos) Hernandez said, “It’s OK for us to share.”
THREE-PLUS STOOGES: The Lynden girls team was led by a trio of standout players who coach Adams liked to call the “Three Stooges”— Keylie Hershey, Ruby VanderHaak and Liv Tjoelker. And kudos to the Lions for taking fourth in state despite being the shortest team in the tournament.
But their whole team will be remembered as much for their playfulness and ability to enjoy the moment. Always smiling for pictures, they even called across the floor to get the attention of this photographer to take a shot of them on the bench — during the game. (Don’t tell Adams!)
But the ringleader, Hershey, had the best moment. With Saturday’s game all but over and sitting with the starters ready to celebrate their victory, Hershey signaled for another sideline photo to be taken of them with cheesy smiles.
But wait! Not yet … Hershey had to fix her hair first. When it was all in place … OK, now you can take the photo. What a fun group.
TOUGH GUY AWARD: It’s hard to top Lynden guard Blake Silves, who took a shot to the face in Friday’s semifinal and had to leave the game with a bloody nose. Not only did the senior return to the game, he got smacked in the nose again and with blood pouring onto the court, had to be escorted to the trainers’ tent.
But Silves wasn’t going to let a little blood stop him.
With just a few minutes left in the Lions’ victory over Pullman, Silves came running back to the bench with cotton swabs up his nose, ready to go back in. He even headed to the scorer’s table before coach Brian Roper told him to return to the bench because the game was already in hand.
If there is a “tough guy” runner-up, it’s Silves’ teammate Dakota Baar, who stood his ground when Selah’s all-star guard Elijah Pepper came barreling down the key. Baar took the charging foul, which would come back to haunt Selah when Pepper fouled out in the final minutes.
But it came at a cost. Baar had to be helped off the court and later returned on crutches with a knee injury. But when the title game was over, there he was on the court with the rest of his celebrating teammates, holding up the state championship trophy.
TOUGH GAL AWARD: You won’t find two tougher teams than the Meridian and Lynden girls, all of whom play defense like their lives depend on stopping the other team.
But if you have to pick just one as the toughest, let the award go to the littlest one — Samantha Villars of Lynden.
The freshman is generously listed as 5-foot-6, but she came off the bench to give her all on every play often against the other team’s best player, even if that player was six inches taller.
On a team of smiling crazies, the focused Villars probably had the fewest grins … but maybe the most floor burns and bruises. Go ahead and smile, Sam. You deserve it.
NEW FACES TO REMEMBER: Speaking of freshmen making an impact, who is Libby Stump and where did she come from?
The LC freshman was such a surprise that she wasn’t even in the team picture in the state program. But boy, did she ever surprise the Lyncs’ opponents at state. In Friday’s semis, she went 5-for-5 from the field and led LC with 14 points.
And don’t forget Meridian’s fabulous freshmen, four of which were on the roster for state. Finnley Claeys was a starting guard, and post Skyleigh James came off the bench to play big minutes and make a big impact. With star Jolee Sipma returning, watch out for the Trojans next year.
OLD FACES TO NEVER FORGET: How spoiled we’ve been the past couple of years to be able to watch some great boys players.
Cole Bajema, who led Lynden Christian to the state title last year and a fourth-place finish this year, has cemented his place as the best player in school history and, along with Luke Ridnour, as one of the best in Whatcom County history.
Then there’s the Lynden tandem of Clayton Whitman and Christian Zamora, who were at their best on the biggest stage, leading the Lions to two straight 2A crowns and this year accomplishing what could be a first — defeating both the 3A state champion (O’Dea) and 1A champion (Zillah) in the same season.
While we can argue whether this year’s team was better than some of the other great Lynden teams (1962? 1981? 1991?), there is no denying that Whitman and Zamora deserve their places among the greatest Lions to ever play.
Those three along with the other seniors on the Lynden and Lynden Christian boys teams will be greatly missed.
ALL-TOURNAMENT: The county was well represented on the all-tournament teams.
Whitman was again named the 2A boys MVP with running mate Zamora making the first team. LC’s Bajema and junior guard Andrew DeVries were named to the first team and second team, respectively, in the 1A boys tourney.
For the girls, LC’s Isabela Hernandez and Riley Dykstra were named to the first team and Grace Sterk to the second team. Lynden’s Hershey also was named to the 2A first team.
And a personal plug for Meridian junior center Jolee Sipma, who deserved all-tournament honors, but because the Trojans lost their first two games, was not seen by many of the people who were covering the tourney. Let’s hope she and the Trojans get another chance to shine next year at state.
CLASS ACTS: In victory and defeat, the players, coaches and, for the most part, fans of our teams showed an immense amount of class even in highly emotional and frustrating circumstances.
From the LC girls, who always handed the ball to the refs instead of throwing it …
To the Lynden boys, who would help up a fallen opponent …
To the Meridian girls, who despite being frustrated by not playing their best, never quit and never gave up on each other …
To the Lynden band, which played for city rival Lynden Christian when the LC band was absent …
To the coaches who never complained about the officiating in public or in private …
To LC coach DeBoer starting Jake Libolt, a reserve who saw very little playing time but who was the team’s biggest cheerleader, in the Lyncs’ final game because Libolt was a senior …
It was certainly an honor to be part of the Whatcom County contingent in Yakima this year.
And like all of us who were there, I’m hoping we’ll all be back at the state tournaments next year.
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.