University’s Michael Isotalo knew more would be expected of him this season after the graduation of Brett Bailey, last year’s Greater Spokane League Most Valuable Player.
“I knew I’d have to step up,” Isotalo said. “I’ve taken more of a responsibility to score.”
It’s not at the clip Bailey scored, but it been sufficient. Isotalo has averaged a team-leading 13.3 points per game, about nine less than Bailey.
He’s more than filled the bill for coach Garrick Phillips.
“He’s just a pleasure to be around,” Phillips said. “He never changes his demeanor. He gives you the same effort every single day. We needed him to step up and be a leader. That’s sort of been difficult for him because he’s not a rah-rah type of guy. He’s a reserved kid, keeps to himself. He’s more of a quiet lead-by-example guy who goes about his business every day.”
Isotalo has one thing in common with Bailey. He hasn’t seen a 3-point shot he doesn’t like.
His average is up five points from a year ago.
The Titans (15-9) are making their third straight trip to the State 3A tournament, beginning this morning at the Tacoma Dome when they open against Eastside Catholic (21-5) at 10:30. Shadle Park (10-13) faces No. 1-ranked and defending state champ Rainier Beach (26-0) at 2.
It’s also Isotalo’s third year to state, the last two as a starter.
It took the Titans a while to find their way.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Isotalo said.
U-Hi stayed the course.
“We’ve been coming along and playing well lately,” Isotalo said.
Playing in the GSL prepared the Titans for postseason. Isotalo is a product of that seasoning.
“I’ve tried to be aggressive but not force anything,” he said. “I shoot when I’m open and share the ball. My teammates trust me. The goal all along was to get back to state.”
Isotalo said the Titans have improved.
“We had to focus on team ball,” he said. “We had to focus harder on defense and rebounding. Some nights we’re undersized. It all starts with defense, because that leads to offense.”
Isotalo knows that games at state will be much like taking on the GSL powers.
“A lot of the teams are going to be more athletic than us,” he said. “We have to make sure we play our game and not our opponents’ game. If we play our game and do what we’re capable of doing, we can win over there.”
He believes the Titans are going to state on a run.
“The last few games have given us some momentum,” he said. “They’ve given our guys confidence.”
The Titans face a team that will be familiar with them – or at least their coach.
Eastside Catholic is coached by Bill Liley, one of Phillips’ friends.
“He knows the path that I’ve taken,” Phillips said. “He was at Mercer Island when I started at Mount Si.”
Phillips looks forward to the challenge.
“We’re going to have to limit their open looks,” Phillips said. “They’re very athletic and play hard-nosed, man-to-man defense. We’re not going to be able to exploit them in the post like we did against Kennedy Catholic. They lost to Rainier Beach by three points and then the next week they lost by 40 points. Hopefully, we catch them on the 40-point (loss) night.”