They’d knocked before, but always were denied.
They’d stood on the doorstep before, but found the front door locked and bolted.
They’d been favored to win it all, but were disappointed.
Freeman High School had never won a state basketball trophy. Both boys and girls teams had played in the finals, sure. The boys lost to Brewster in 1975 as the Bears began their string of three straight State B titles. The girls reached the finals in 2005, but were upset by Colfax.
That all changed Saturday in Yakima, where the Scotties capped a 23-1 season by thumping Granger, 56-35, to win the Class 1A state tournament in the SunDome. Now, when the construction dust settles and they finally move back into their high school, the Scotties have the big gold ball to sit in their trophy case.
“This feels so good,” said senior Korina Baker, named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “Especially this year. This was a tough year.”
The Scotties have had this trophy in their sights since 2005. The team was fourth in 2006, fifth in 2008 and third a year ago.
In 2005 it was injuries that wore down a team that entered the tourney ranked No. 1 in the state. Melissa Baker, Korina’s sister and that team’s starting point guard, struggled with a pulled hamstring. Kaila Floyd, now an assistant coach, missed the tournament opener with the flu and the team’s coach, Ashlee Taylor, played with shin splints so painful that she played with tears running down her face as she willed herself up and down the court.
“We were very conscious about injuries and staying healthy,” Baker said. “We stayed that way – I think some of us caught cold once we got there, but we handled all that. I think that was important.”
That 2005 game is an organic part of this team’s makeup. Starters Baker and McKenzie Taylor had sisters start on that team.
“I was there to watch my sister play in that tournament,” Baker said. “In a lot of ways, this feels like we made up for that year – it feels like time is repeating itself. There’s a lot of symmetry between that team and this one. My sister got to play in a state championship game, and I did, too.
“When they lost that game there were a lot of tears for them in the stands. After we won, my sister was there, and she had tears in her eyes. She told me that it feels now as though she’d won a state title, too.”
There is some payback, too, involved in beating Granger. It was the Spartans who tripped up the Scotties in the first round in 2008, forcing the team to battle back through the consolation bracket to earn a fifth-place trophy.
A state championship is the capstone to a remarkable season for Freeman.
When school opened at the end of the summer, the only thing standing on South Jackson Road where the high school stood was a lonely looking gymnasium. Because of demolition of the old high school and ongoing construction of a new high school at the site, the old gym was unavailable.
Without a home court, the Scotties were forced to practice and play their home games at The HUB, an athletic complex in Liberty Lake.
“This was a tough year,” Baker admitted. “Not having a single home game, having to essentially play every game on the road – it was a challenging year. This certainly wasn’t my ideal senior year. It was rougher than normal.”
Players would load up and travel to Liberty Lake each day after school. Since The HUB has no lockers, each player had to take what they needed with them each day.
Through it all, Taylor marveled, no one complained. They kept moving forward.
And despite the trying situation, there was just the one loss – to Northeast A League rival Lakeside at The HUB. The Scotties rallied from that loss, knocking off the Eagles at Nine Mile Falls and again at Mead to ensure a state tournament berth.
Most coaches work their entire career without winning a state championship.
Ashlee Taylor has one at age 22, in her second season as a head coach.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way – I guess I have set the bar kind of high for myself,” Taylor laughed. “I love what I’m doing and, I think, as long as they keep wanting me back I’m going to keep working with these kids.”
“This team is very, very close,” Baker said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Taylor and Floyd both received congratulations from their former head coach, Matt Gregg, now the head women’s coach at Warner Pacific College.
“After the semifinal game I grabbed Ashlee and Kaila and hugged them and told them this doesn’t have anything to do with coaching,” Gregg said. “It has to do with you two starting this program with summer workouts and buying into a system.
“They learned what needed to be done behind the scenes and have continued that work ethic. Ashlee has done a great job with all the adversity she and the team have had to face with the fact that they don’t have a gym … .
“After the Ellensburg game I called her on my way home and told her she did a great job with clock management and timeouts. Each game she becomes a better coach and I couldn’t be prouder of her.”
For her part, Taylor already is preparing herself for the summer league season, which gets under way in June. Last year she entered Freeman in the high school league at Spokane Falls Community College and took them to tournaments at several colleges, including a trip to San Diego.
“I’m not sure if we’re going to do quite as much this summer as we did last year,” she said. “But we’re going to get in quite a bit of basketball. I’m excited about the team we’re going to have back, but it’s going to be tough to replace this senior class.”
And Baker, too, is preparing for her next basketball challenge.
“I’ve already given my verbal commitment to play at North Idaho College,” she said. “I am looking forward to playing close to home.”