March 4, 1998

Roadblock To The B Hands-Off Experience Defines A Long-Shot Final Four Whose State Trips Add Up To Zero

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On the occasion of the 55th State B Tournament, with a whopping eight first-timers in the field, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Final Four.

Colton. Touchet. Mary M. Knight. Easton.

The four schools which have never made it to a State B. Oh, technically, there are others. But mostly they are Bs-come-latelies - the assorted Christians and Lutherans and Tribals which in the past 10 or 15 years have begun to clutter the landscape of little-school basketball in Washington. This isn’t about instant gratification. These imposters, by and large, have not yet paid their dues, and thus don’t fit within the parameters of our survey.

And then there are schools which outgrew the B before they could qualify, like Oroville, or schools whose enrollments have evaporated to the point they cannot muster a varsity team, like Wishram.

In all, 192 schools and hyphenated conglomerates have played in the State B, either for boys or girls.

But not the Final Four.

This distinction they all endure with some puzzlement, some indifference and some resignation.

All, certainly, would welcome the belated reward of a trip to Spokane, but understand that the odds get longer all the time. And many have found regular success in some other athletic arena.

“It defies logic,” said Mike Kramer, a Colton kid who grew up to become head football coach at Eastern Washington University yet professes to be “obsessed” by his hometown never making it to the Little Dance.

“What do all those other small towns have that mine doesn’t? Bigger gyms? Bigger baskets?”

Bigger fish to fry?

None of the above.

Mostly it’s a combination of cruel circumstance, conscious choice and the company they keep.

Colton’s lament

Nick Bates is a gifted small-school athlete - tough, quick, strong, good hops. In a B-8 football game last fall, he rushed for 595 yards - six shy of the national record.

But then, Colton has always had good football players, and often good football teams. For three years running in the 1970s, the Wildcats won the state B-11 championship - and did it again in 1983. After dropping to B-8, they were runners-up in 1990 and this past fall. And they were also the State B baseball champions in 1974, ‘76 and ‘80.

Common sense suggests that a B school with a good enough ensemble to win state titles in football and baseball should at least be able to get through the district basketball tournament.

But Colton’s is an uncommon case.

For the Wildcats play in the Whitman County League, once recognized as the most competitive of the state’s B leagues and still a bear despite dwindling population.

Yet while Colton is in Whitman County, it is not exactly of Whitman County.

“I never really felt the kids in Colton had that same Whitman County mentality,” said Jim Smith, Colton’s basketball coach in the mid-1970s and now at Walla Walla High.

Smith remembers his Colton days fondly, calling it a community “with that old kind of feel. The kids and families were great. Kids came to school knowing if they got in trouble, they’d really catch it at home. I’ve always said that I probably never should have left.”

He coached some of Colton’s better hoop teams, and assisted with those other championship programs.

“But I never felt like the kids really cared about basketball,” he said. “In the summer, all our kids played was baseball. I used to kid Roy Graffis at Oakesdale that every kid in his town had a key to the gym.”

And it’s a feeling that trickles down to today’s Colton athlete - like Nick Bates.

“You know when you’re younger and you have birthday parties?” said Bates, the leading scorer on this year’s Colton hoops team. “We’d call up 20 people to have a birthday party and split up into two teams and play tackle football in somebody’s yard. Or we’d make a fence and pitch whiffle balls to one another.

“Maybe when we got a little older, we’d go down to the shorter rims and dunk and stuff - but as far as organized basketball, we never had it when we were younger.”

More recently, Colton has involved itself in Whitman County’s youth league. And Bates’ father Bob, a former football coach, noted it was the same athletes turning out for all the teams all along.

“But it’s like anything else,” he said. “Success breeds success, and where we had success first was football and baseball. We had some disappointments in basketball.”

Perhaps no greater disappointment lingers than the one from 1976, when the Wildcats went 16-4 during the regular season and reached the title game of the county tournament against 18-2 Oakesdale.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve told this story,” said Smith. “Oakesdale was down one and held the ball the whole fourth quarter. My assistant was Mick Dennehy (now head football coach at the University of Montana) and we’re a couple of young coaches and we weren’t aware of the foul situation. We still had four or five fouls to waste. They took a timeout with about 15 seconds to go and worked the ball around and put a shot up from the corner over our 6-8 kid and it went in.”

Oakesdale 26, Colton 25. It was the boys’ only appearance in the county championship game.

“Roy (Graffis) and I thought we both had good chances to get to state,” Smith recalled, “but we both lost at district. LaCrosse and Rosalia went instead.”

The year before, the Wildcats lost the playback game at district to Washtucna for the right to go to state - Colton’s closest call ever. That is, until 1996, when the girls dropped a 32-31 decision to Pomeroy in the state qualifier after beating the Pirates just days earlier.

This year, the Colton boys actually played spoiler for a while. Coming into the county tournament as the fifth seed, the Wildcats beat Rosalia, then upset Tekoa-Oakesdale before falling by one point to LaCrosse-Washtucna on a blocked shot with two seconds remaining.

Touchet can relate

If there’s a town that can commiserate with Colton’s basketball frustration, it’s Touchet.

For the Indians are members of the Blue Mountain League, which must battle Whitman County for the two state berths allotted District 9.

Think the Whitman reputation is hype? Between 1946 and 1997, District 9 sent 100 boys teams to state. All but 17 of those berths went to Whitman County teams. Washtucna didn’t even make it to state until it moved out of the Blue Mountain and into the Whitman County League.

And yet Touchet, like Colton, has excelled in football - the Indians won the B-8 title in 1979 and 1994, and was runner-up in 1995 and ‘96.

Other football powers have come up similarly empty in hoops. Soap Lake won the B-11 crown in 1973 and made the semis twice in the ‘80s, but still hasn’t sent a boys basketball team to Spokane. Napavine, Oakville, Inchelium and Prescott all won football championships in the ‘70s and ‘80s, yet have State B droughts ranging from 37 to 66 years - Napavine breaking through this year. Crescent, a perennial football finalist, can’t get out of the four-team North Olympic League in hoops.

Bill Gardner has coached a little bit of everything at Soap Lake in 29 years - but mostly football and baseball - and thinks he knows why.

“It’s not valid to think if you have some football success it’s going to carry over to basketball,” he said. “Whether you’re a B school or 4A, basketball is a skill sport you have to start playing early to be successful.”

Gardner can remember the nearest miss.

“The first year I was here,” he said. “We got two berths to state and lost in double overtime to Brewster for the second one. We haven’t been close since.”

This year, Soap Lake played just a JV schedule because of poor numbers in its upper classes - and numbers are a huge factor in futility.

Mary M. Knight outside of Matlock in remote Mason County is the smallest school in its district, and for several years couldn’t muster a girls team.

Easton is another enrollment-challenged school - just 35 students - which in recent years has played as an independent. The Jaguars were seeded No. 8 into the District 6 tourney this year; in the past, when the district had eight teams, Easton would play the eighth-place team for the right to enter the tournament.

Underpopulated Wishram, which has never sent a boys or girls team to state, has just 18 students enrolled in the top four grades. The Indians wound up playing a JV schedule with a mixed team of boys and girls.

How many kids on the team?

“Tell me what day,” said athletic director Marshall Jeffries.

A missing mania

Still, no situation seems as curious as Colton’s - because of its fine athletic history and its membership in hoop-crazy Whitman County.

And yet Kramer suggests that’s mostly mapmaking.

“To get to any of those towns from Colton, you have to go through Pullman and Colfax,” he said. “There’s no interplay at all. You get to know those other guys when you go to college. It’s not a rivalry, it’s not personal. At Reardan and Ritzville, they farm fenceline to fenceline.”

But Colton does not share the rest of the county’s mania for basketball.

Take this year’s county tournament. The Colton boys and girls played back-to-back games, with a rooting section - not counting a very fine band - of fewer than 20 bodies, maybe a third of what any other school brought. In the tournament program, each of the other teams was saluted by co-op ads listing, in some cases, more than 100 boosters.

Two businesses - Bob Bates’ insurance firm and Busch Bulk Oil - took out ads supporting the Wildcats.

And Smith remembered going to the State B “and never seeing anybody from Colton. You’d always see other Whitman County people even if their teams didn’t qualify.”

“It’s just not a passion,” said Kramer. “I may be the first guy from Colton ever to play in Hoopfest - and I played last year.”

And yet, 55 years into this quest, hope springs eternal.

“I still think we have a chance of making it to state,” said Nick Bates. “We had a great sophomore class this year and if they keep working, I think they can do it.

“And I’ll be there to watch it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. Never done that

The State B is a mostly equal opportunity tournament. But for a few schools, it’s been the impossible dream. Here’s a listing of those schools whose record of futility has been the most remarkable. Not included are schools which no longer exist (such as Boistfort) or no longer field teams (Wishram), newer schools whose basketball histories are less than 20 years old (Taholah) and schools which moved down from the A ranks within the last 20 years (DeSales).

No State B, boys or girls

Colton

Touchet

Mary M. Knight (Matlock)

Easton

No State B, boys only

Crescent (girls played in ‘82)

Lopez (girls in ‘82)

Overlake (girls in ‘86)

Soap Lake (girls played in ‘81)

2. State B droughts

Boys teams whose last appearances are distant memories:

Prescott (last appearance 1932)

Kaholtus (1954)

Thorp (1958)

Napavine (1961)

Inchelium (1966)

Klickitat (1967)

Wilson Creek (1969)

Oakville (1970)

Skykomish (1971)

Curlew (1972)

Selkirk (1973)

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Never done that The State B is a mostly equal opportunity tournament. But for a few schools, it’s been the impossible dream. Here’s a listing of those schools whose record of futility has been the most remarkable. Not included are schools which no longer exist (such as Boistfort) or no longer field teams (Wishram), newer schools whose basketball histories are less than 20 years old (Taholah) and schools which moved down from the A ranks within the last 20 years (DeSales). No State B, boys or girls Colton Touchet Mary M. Knight (Matlock) Easton No State B, boys only Crescent (girls played in ‘82) Lopez (girls in ‘82) Overlake (girls in ‘86) Soap Lake (girls played in ‘81)

2. State B droughts Boys teams whose last appearances are distant memories: Prescott (last appearance 1932) Kaholtus (1954) Thorp (1958) Napavine (1961) Inchelium (1966) Klickitat (1967) Wilson Creek (1969) Oakville (1970) Skykomish (1971) Curlew (1972) Selkirk (1973)


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email