Even for someone who has seen well over 40 years worth of basketball state tournaments, State 2020 stands out as one of the best.
Whatcom County has had other years with two state champions as we had this year — take a bow, Lynden and Lynden Christian girls — and other years with five teams bringing home trophies — that’s you, boys of Lynden Christian (second), Lynden (third) and Lummi Nation (fifth).
But I can’t remember a year that left players, coaches and fans as overwhelmed by emotions — from ecstasy to heartbreak. It could be seen on their faces after exciting victories and heard in their choked up voices after devastating losses.
So, after covering 16 games in four days in Yakima (and four more games by phone from Spokane), taking about 4,000 pictures (and hoping 40 were in focus), drinking way too many Diet Pepsis and getting way too little sleep, here are some final thoughts about the special teams that made State 2020 so memorable.
(You can re-read the stories on the links below and see lots of pictures on the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page. And a big thank you to photographers Heather Leighton and Keenan Gray, correspondent Luie Smit and editor Kelli Terpsma.)
If you watched the Lions all season and especially the games after their one loss, you knew no team in Yakima would stop them from winning the Class 2A state championship.
They were determined and showed it by crushing even the best competition. Their 18-point dismantling of co-favorite Ellenburg in the quarterfinals stood as the most impressive victory all week — boys or girls, 2A or 1A — at least until the very last game in Yakima.
But these girls were not just talented, they were fun. Lots of fun. From posing for pictures during the game (only when they were ahead by 20, of course) to cheering for every basket like it was a game-winner, there was no better team to cover.
Best of all, they showed what caring relationships were, especially the way they — and all the Lynden faithful — made Ashtyn Van Dalen the darling of the team. If there was any disappointment in a near-perfect Yakima experience for the Lions, it was that Ashtyn didn’t score in the state championship game.
And coach Rob Adams provided my favorite quote of the tournament. In describing what it was like for the opposing team’s best player to be hounded by Lynden defensive specialist Anna VanderYacht all game, he said: “We call it the ‘Anna VanderYacht experience.’ It’s like going to an amusement park … but a really, really bad one.”
Memorable moment: It’s hard to beat the joy of winning the state championship, or for this reporter to have them all point at me while getting their team picture after winning state and shout, “One for Jim!” But one of the best moments of the tournament was when the crowd went crazy when Van Dalen went into the state championship game. (I’m not crying, you are.)
State championship: mission-accomplished-lynden-girls-win-2a-state-championship
Lynden Christian girls
It is so rare when the two best teams in the tournament play the best game of the tournament in the state championship game, but the Lyncs and Cashmere Bulldogs did in the Class 1A finale.
Those who were there — and most of the town of Lynden seemed to be — will remember this game for a long time. And they will remember this team even among the dozen other Lynden Christian state championship teams.
Because this was the LC team that beat an undefeated Cashmere team being hailed as one of the best Class 1A teams ever and that beat Hailey Van Lith, perhaps the best Washington state player ever.
And it was no fluke. The Lyncs rallied from eight points down in the fourth quarter, shot 60 percent for the game and shut out Van Lith in the final period. From the tipoff to the final buzzer, it was tense, well-played by both teams, and as exciting as any basketball game you’ll ever see.
What made this LC team remarkable was that it truly was a team with no superstar. But put together, they became a super team that along with Lynden will be ranked as one of the best teams in the state regardless of classification.
Memorable moment: Perhaps because the game came down to literally the last second, but the moment the buzzer went off and Cashmere’s desperation heave went way off the mark, and the girls on the bench rushed the floor … it was just a rush of emotion from anxiety to pure joy. The girls are probably still jumping up and down. (I’m not smiling, you are.)
State championship: lc-girls-do-it-again-beat-cashmere-for-state-title
Lynden Christian boys
Storybook endings are storybook endings because they don’t happen often, and this one had storybook ending written all over it … until it didn’t happen.
Everyone expected it to be a down year for the Lyncs. Everyone expected their stay in the state tournament to be brief. Everyone expected them to be blown out by heavily favored King’s in the state championship game. Everyone … that is except the Lyncs themselves.
Using great outside shooting, a unique rotation of offensive and defensive players, and a lot of good, old-fashion heart in the face of opposition, the Lyncs came within seconds and one point of winning the most unexpected state title. Instead, they lost in overtime and had to “settle” for second in the state.
It wasn’t the storybook ending, but this still was a team that will go down in LC record books for its accomplishment.
Memorable moment: The Lyncs biggest moment in the state tournament actually came in regionals the Saturday before when they upset Zillah in an exciting game that deserved to be played in the SunDome for a trophy. The victory propelled Lynden Christian to the state finals.
State final: lc-boys-lose-to-kings-in-ot-finish-second
They lost all the starters off their two-time state championship team. They lost six of their top seven players. They lost 10 of the 12 on the team. And yet the Lions kept winning, and winning and winning.
With almost no varsity experience, they matured as much as any team maybe in the state and came within one bad quarter of playing for a state championship. Looking back, you wonder how we doubted the Lynden legacy … but with hard work they came close to becoming the first three-time state champion in school history.
What stands out about this team of youngsters was how calm they were. If last year’s team was fire, this year’s was ice … not getting shook up when behind, not letting the pressure get to them. Even the fateful loss in the semifinals wasn’t them losing as much as North Kitsap’s hot shooting winning it.
Memorable moment: This, too, came in the regionals, when the young Lions found themselves down by nine early and in danger of losing their first real state game. That’s when grizzled veteran Brock Heppner got their attention, and pointed to the smile on his face as if to say, “Hey, relax. Let’s have some fun.” They did, winning that game and going on to add a third-place trophy to their already huge trophy case.
Third-place game: 2a-boys-lynden-lions-go-out-winners-take-third
Lummi Nation boys
While I wasn’t there to witness the Blackhawks’ return to the Class 1B state tournament in Spokane, it was still hard not to feel sorry for the way it played out for a team that had high hopes and had been playing at a high level.
If you haven’t heard, Lummi Nation lost its semifinal game when a foul was called on a halfcourt desperation heave as time expired. Was it a foul? Maybe. Should it have been called when so little contact was made on a shot that wasn’t going to go in and when that call would decide the outcome of the game?
I may be a little (or a lot) biased here, but if it had happened to Lummi Nation and the ref hadn’t called it, nobody would have complained. Just let it go. Let these two great teams go into overtime and decide it. But it wasn’t to be.
Having to come back from such heartbreak proved too much and the Blackhawks lost the consolation final and had to settle for fifth place. It was still an accomplishment, but not what this outstanding team had hoped for or deserved.
Memorable moment: Lummi Nation coach Jerome Toby often talks about how the team takes pride in representing not only the school but the entire community … literally the Lummi Nation. But to talk to him shortly after the devastating loss and not hear a bitter word or angry tone was remarkable. He even praised the opponent for making the pressure free throw that ended the Blackhawks’ dream of a state title. Coach Toby, you and the team truly did represent the best of the Lummi Nation.
Fifth-place game: lummi-nation-boys-come-out-cold-settle-for-fifth
Most teams that make it to state have to overcome obstacles and challenges, but when the Trojans lost a key returnee to a football injury before basketball even started, it looked like their chances of getting to Yakima for the first time in 10 years seemed slim.
But this group of Trojans, especially the seniors, was determined and willing to do what it took, including play gritty defense and be mentally tough enough to win the close games. It was hard not to root for them, because they always seemed to be the underdogs … underdogs that never gave up.
So despite not earning a trophy, they earned a lot of respect, first by getting Meridian back to the state tournament and then by giving some of the best Class 1A teams a run for their money.
Memorable moment: It was inspiring watching “manager” Cameron Webster cheer on his teammates knowing that they’d be even better had he not gotten injured, but seeing coach Shane Stacy hug one of his tearful seniors in the hallway after the season-ending loss was a perfect picture of what coaching is all about.
Consolation game: 1a-boys-state-meridians-season-comes-to-end-with-loss
First-round game: 1a-boys-state-meridian-rolls-over-b-c-into-quarterfinals
Lummi Nation girls
Sometimes the biggest winners aren’t the state champions, which is why the Lady Blackhawks have to be the county’s “feel good” story.
Just five years ago, they were 1-19. They only have one senior and start two freshmen. And yet playing the fullcourt pressure defense the Lummi Nation boys are known for, the Lummi Nation girls battled through the playoffs and not only made it to regionals but made it to Spokane.
Their stay there wasn’t long as they lost in the first round, which is too bad because they were fun to watch. But now that the program has turned around, don’t be surprised if the state trophies start coming.
Memorable moment: Again, unable to see them play in Spokane, it’s hard to know what was memorable. But having watched them several times in person, I’m just going to guess that sometime after the game, at least one little child will be running into the arms of one of the Lady Blackhawks. Because that’s just what family does.
First-round game: 1b-girls-state-lummi-nations-great-season-ends
Nooksack Valley girls
Another of the young teams that made it to state perhaps a year earlier than expected, the Pioneers rode their tough defense and a balanced attack all the way to Yakima before losing another heartbreaker in the final seconds to Zillah in the loser-out first round.
What was interesting about the Pioneers is that on any given night, any one of about six players could lead them in scoring, which made them better as a team. That also says a lot about the leadership, starting with coach Shane Wichers and their lone senior, Kora Larsen.
Memorable moment: I dread interviewing players after a loss, and it’s harder when it’s a senior whose career comes to an end. But while so many others would have been in tears, Larsen managed a smile and talked about how happy she was to play with her team, even knowing she wouldn’t be with them next year when they have a chance at a trophy. Again, it reminds us how even teenage basketball players can teach us old-timers what’s important.
First-round game: 1a-girls-state-nooksack-valley-comes-up-short-against-zillah
The Road Warriors … these Trojans had to be the long shot of the Whatcom County teams, playing more games to get to state and more pressure-packed, loser-out contests, all on the road, of course.
A young team — stop me if this sounds familiar — with only one senior, Meridian used a stingy defense, a lot of desire and probably some duct tape to piece together a team that made it to the first round of state before finally being eliminated.
With three sophomores and a junior starting and more sophomores coming off the bench, Meridian is another team that gained valuable experience for possible state runs the next couple of years.
Memorable moment: When the state games in Yakima are over, it’s always inspiring to watch as the teams — especially the losing teams — come out of the locker room and each player is cheered by a crowd of supporters. For Meridian, that meant chasing down their lone senior, Amanda Schleimer, who had already begun crying when hugged by her family. Yet, she took the time to answer questions and say that it was an honor to be at state with her teammates.
First-round game: 1a-girls-state-meridian-cant-slow-walker-annie-wright
No, Amanda, it was an honor to cover you and all the players, coaches and fans that make Whatcom County basketball so special. Thank you.
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.