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Colton boys break through to reach state tournament

The hair-trigger inclination is to report that Colton’s first appearance in the boys portion of the State 1B – or any B – basketball tournament this week had the coach so excited he was ready to burst.

But, hey, that’s not funny.

In fact, minutes after the Wildcats had routed Moses Lake Christian in Wenatchee on Saturday afternoon to secure their passage to Spokane, coach Seth Paine was loaded into a car and assistant Ed Robertson burned rubber to the hospital in Pullman, where on Sunday morning Paine had his appendix removed.

“It had started bothering me on Thursday morning,” he said, “but I just thought that Taco Time had tried to poison me.”

Or he could have chalked it up to nerves 68 years in the making.

Say what you want about the maddening split of the Bs four years ago – and just about everything has – but one objective’s been reached: Schools that had rarely, or never, qualified have had their paths cleared. Napavine, Klickitat, Curlew and Selkirk ended long absences. Lopez Island’s boys made it. Mary M. Knight broke through, boys and girls. Last year it was Soap Lake’s boys. Still without a boys appearance among traditional B schools are Crescent and Touchet. Easton and Wishram no longer have the enrollments to support their own teams.

Now, in the boys tournament’s 69th year, the B club finally welcomes Colton, a little community on Highway 195 south of Pullman that’s as trusting – the high school lockers have no locks – as it is handsome. For decades, the lack of participation at state was confounding – and even a little eerie.

“Was it the Curse of the Bambino?” wondered Jerry Morse, who taught and coached and more at Colton for 32 years. “The Billy Goat? Bartman? I surely don’t have the answer.”

Neither do the current Wildcats – nor are they devoting much time to the question.

“I’m sure afterward it’ll hit all of us and you’ll wonder why it took so long,” junior Josh Straughan said. “But we’re just trying to win games and get that gold ball.”

Gold the school has mined before. The Colton girls, who didn’t reach state until 2007, have won the last two 1B titles under coach Clark Vining and are thinking threepeat. Morse coached the baseball team to three State B baseball championships in the 1970s. The Wildcats have four state football titles and two in softball.

But that’s the mystery. It wasn’t just that the Wildcat boys didn’t win – they never made the tournament. Only once did they even reach the winner-to-state game, losing to Washtucna in 1975.

This was in an era when the Wildcats were harvesting football and baseball trophies, and at the B level it didn’t seem to make much sense that athletes good enough to do that couldn’t put the brown thing in the round thing. Except that Colton played in the gone, but fondly memorialized, Whitman County League, Washington’s answer to the “Hoosiers” mentality.

“If no other sport existed, I don’t think a lot of people in the county would have been upset,” Morse said. “It was harder to get out of our league than to place at state.”

But Colton is a bit walled off from the rest of the Whitman schools, geographically and otherwise. Morse recalled another county school once arriving for a baseball doubleheader without its two regular pitchers – they were off playing AAU ball.

Now the Colton kids – girls and boys – devote their summers to chasing the game, too. Straughan is as solid on the court as he was last fall at quarterback. His favorite receiver, Steve Eacker, is the team’s best defender. And there’s a real basketball weapon in 6-foot-6 Dustin Patchen, who came of age with a 40-point outburst against Asotin.

Elevating their expectations is Paine – East Valley graduate, Lewiston resident, produce manager at Dissmore’s IGA in Pullman by day. He assisted at a couple of Whitman schools before taking the Colton job two years ago, and before this season flouted history by printing up shirts emblazoned “STATE” – representing sacrifice, tenacity, attitude, togetherness and energy. The Wildcats have had their hiccups – they haven’t beaten Rosalia in three tries – but they’re here, though under the WIAA’s new format they had to win what were defined as two “state” games in Wenatchee to reach the final eight in Spokane.

“This has all been a great challenge for them, to see if they could be the first (boys) team to do something in the school’s history,” Paine said. “That was kind of the cry going into districts – let’s make history. They haven’t shied away from it. It hasn’t been a burden or a distraction. It’s been a motivator.”

And history, well, it’s been burst.