There’s something about the return of Liberty High School to the bracket that puts the B back in the Tournaments B.
When it came time decades ago for a new campus to serve the villages of Spangle, Waverly, Latah, Fairfield, Plaza and Mt. Hope, the school fathers picked none of them and settled on a field of dreams in the stubble out beyond Google Street View.
“Right in the middle of farm land,” said athletic director Blaze Burnham, admiring the view on a sunny day. “As much as I love basketball season, some of the best times are in the fall during football when you’ve got everyone here on the campus, the youth programs are going and the lights are on.
“It reminds you of why you treasure life at a little school.”
This week gives the Lancers something else to treasure – the boys team’s first trip to state in 14 years, as part of the 2B field.
“Everybody’s excited to be part of this,” said Burnham’s son, Match, a junior and Liberty’s leading scorer.
And B devotees get a bonus: name recognition.
With all deference to the tire peddlers and dairy farmers who lend their financial support to the WIAA’s events, the 2B/1B tournament should be sponsored by Ancestry.com. Family histories are as necessary to the B’s as air in the basketballs, and in this department the Lancers may have pulled rank on the field.
The Burnham name has been part of B lore since the late-1980s, when Blaze played for St. John-Endicott. The Eagles twice came up agonizingly short of the gold ball, falling to Morton in back-to-back title games, but Burnham was unstoppable, and reigned as the B’s career scoring leader until Sunnyside Christian’s Lance DenBoer finally overtook him in 2003.
But that’s only half of it. Match and freshman brother Chase’s mom, Cheri, is a Soliday – of the Reardan Solidays, no fewer than 14 of whom have played in the B down through years. And Mom did win a state title with the Indians, in 1988.
“Yeah,” Match admitted, “I hear about that every so often.”
And now he and the Lancers have the opportunity to make a little history of their own.
It’s been a long climb back. Once a semi-regular – and state champs in 1986 – Liberty’s last B trip was in 1999, after which the school was bumped into the A ranks for five years, making an appearance in that tournament in 2000. A couple of one-win-from-state near misses followed the school’s return to the B’s, and then some years when Lancers basketball was irrelevant, perhaps even in their own community.
The reversal has been engineered by another familiar basketball name, though not one with B roots. Mike Thacker is part of Washington coaching’s first family – he, brother Jim and his late father, Ray, have won more than 1,300 games in Washington, and more beyond the borders. He was Burnham’s first hire back in 2010, two years after being dismissed as coach at Freeman in a clumsy and unpopular coup that divided the district.
Thacker has performed a rebuild of Liberty’s youth program, and is “more than grateful” to families who have invested in the no-offseason culture that’s taken over high school basketball.
“I appreciate the sacrifices in them letting me have their kids so much,” said Thacker, who nonetheless acknowledged that he’s “tempered his expectations.”
“I’ve always been an all-in kind of guy,” he said, “but your perspective has to change a little bit.”
The results have certainly been dramatic. The Lancers are 22-7, with a very non-B look. At 6-foot-7 (and growing) Match Burnham is able to play outside because the team has more 4A size in 6-4 Ryan Thayer and 6-5 Clay Fleming.
Yet they’re still looking up. All seven of Liberty’s losses this season have been at the hands of St. George’s and Lind-Ritzville/Sprague. With Northwest Christian also in, Northeast 2B teams make up half the field.
“It’s tough a tough league and playing those teams wears on you sometimes,” Match said, “but it definitely has made us better and that’s awesome. I love it.”
And B mavens can’t help but love the serendipity. As it happened, Blaze and Cheri didn’t connect through the tournament, but only when Blaze played with her father, Ron, in the old Mead Pro-Am League during his college summers. That their kids – and the rest of the Lancers – have a chance to share those experiences “just gives me the chills,” Blaze said.
“I was a little kid at St. John that watched Keith and Gary Nelson and Bill Parrish and wanted to be them,” he said. “It’s a joy that some little kid at Liberty will look at these kids and think the same thing.”
One already has.
“I’ve been looking forward to this,” Match said, “since I was little.”