Washington Highway 6 southwest of Olympia winds through Adna and Pe Ell on the way to Willapa Bay.
It passes through towns where traditions are strong, and kids, likely as not, grow up to be like their fathers and mothers.
High school basketball is on the social Main Street for folks in these places, and they count themselves lucky if their teams qualify for the annual championship tournament that concludes tonight at the Spokane Coliseum.
Danny Cox is a fourth-generation logger. In 1967, he came to Spokane as a member of the Pe Ell High School team to compete against other top teams from Class B schools, the state’s smallest.
The Pe Ell Trojans were knocked out of the tournament that year, and didn’t make it back until this season.
For Cox, it’s been a triumphant return. His son, Travis, is a guard for Pe Ell.
“I waited 28 years and three boys to get here,” Cox said from the stands this week. “It’s a dream come true for me.”
For 38 seasons, the Coliseum has hosted the Coxes and families like them, but this is the last tournament in the old barn on Boone. The new Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena will be open by next year with double the seating.
While some are sorry to see the Coliseum go, it seems unlikely a tournament this rich in tradition will lose anything in a new venue.
After all, it’s the small-town folks who come year after year who’ve given the B tournament its sense of timelessness and simplicity.
In 1971, now-retired teacher Jack Pearson coached the Willapa Valley High School boys to the tournament. Even though his team didn’t win, he said, he was bitten by the B bug. “I haven’t missed a tournament since.”
He and a group of his Willapa Valley neighbors made the eight-hour drive to Spokane just like they do every year. It doesn’t matter whether their team qualifies, said Pearson, a commercial fisherman.
“I’ve met a lot of people here over the years,” Pearson said. “I like the tournament. I like the town of Spokane. It’s good darn fun.
“We just hope we bring our team next year.”
Some communities are blessed with strong teams year after year.
In Naselle in Pacific County, the school district doesn’t schedule classes during tournament week.
Naselle has made 31 appearances, tying Reardan for the most trips to the tournament since it began in 1931.
“You can almost count the years we haven’t been here easier than the years we have,” said Lori Dearmore, a 1981 Naselle High School graduate and former cheerleader. She is now a school librarian in Naselle and adviser for the cheerleader squad.
In a lot of these communities, the tournament is a thread that runs through generations of families.
Dearmore’s mother, Darlene Bjornsgard, was a cheerleader for Naselle in the early 1960s. Her brother, Ryan Bjornsgard, played for Naselle in the 1987 tournament.
“I started coming when I was in the fourth grade with my parents,” Dearmore said. “For the small B schools, sports is such a part of the program, the community is into it.”
This year, Dearmore’s daughter, 21-month-old Kaelee, wore her own cheerleader sweater and followed the big girls onto the floor when they performed their routines.
Basketball is more than a love affair. For some, it can grow into a lifetime commitment.
Chip Elliott, a former player, met his bride, Cindy, on the basketball floor in Pe Ell. She was a cheerleader. Now, their son, Donny, is a guard on this year’s Pe Ell team.
“The small communities are already close, and then something like this brings them together even more,” Cindy Elliott said. “Just being here, win or lose, is something else.”
What shouldn’t surprise anyone is the diversity of these small towns.
The Mabton team from the Yakima Valley is led by Hispanic students. So is the cheerleading squad. Native Americans star on the Neah Bay team - the Red Devils.
Emma Dulik, a tribal judge in Neah Bay, was here to watch her grandson, Nick Brunk, and a nephew, Michael Johnston. She’s had other relatives in the tournament in previous years. So far, the best finish has been fourth place, she said.
After Neah Bay lost its opening game, Dulik wasn’t about to quit. “Hopefully, they’ll pick up their spirits and go,” she said.
A lot of fans come simply because they enjoy the competition and the friendly game atmosphere.
Dick Chapman, a retired Spokane police sergeant, said he used to check in on the tournament while he was an officer to make sure there was no trouble. There never was.
“They’re clean-cut kids,” he said.
Now, he’s hooked on just watching the games.
The tournament comes at a good time of the year for a lot of people. Farmers haven’t started spring chores yet, and loggers can find time to leave the woods.
Ron Mickelson came down from Alta Lake north of Wenatchee to cheer on the Pateros High School Billygoats. He said early March is a slow time of year at the Whistling Pines Resort, which is home to the Sawtooth Outfitters, a horseback riding business.
He said he was thrilled because it was the first appearance in the tournament ever for Pateros.
Not only that, he said, “It’s just kind of a nice break.”
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