It’s state tournament week and the fact that the Freeman boys basketball team is still in the gym put a bigger-than-usual grin on Jack Paukert’s face.
Paukert has a world-class grin; it’s where his joie de vivre leaks out and infects teammates, friends and anyone who touches his life. And this week it’s ramped up by more than a few megawatts.
“When we were kids, Freeman went to state every year and we were kind of spoiled by that. But we got here and found out just how hard it is to get there. And it feels so good to get back.”
Paukert’s grin goes up another few megawatts as a memory pops into his head, just before he lets you in on his secret.
You see, it’s been six years since the Scotties earned a ticket to the State Class 1A tournament and if you do the math, you know that Paukert and his fellow seniors were in grade school the last time Freeman boarded a bus for Yakima.
But still, Paukert and junior teammate Ryan Maine are state tournament veterans.
“Ryan and me, we were ball boys on the last team that went to state,” he said. “We were there at the end of the bench with the team.”
And both have an added hunger to bring home a state Class 1A state championship.
Both have a sister who played on the school’s back-to-back state title teams.
Paukert looks up at the wall on the Freeman gym where state championship banners hang. There is a banner for last year’s state championship wrestling team and another for a state football championship. Two state girls basketball championship banners hang proudly along with two each for volleyball and girls tennis. Boys track leads the way with three banners.
No one says it, but the missing boys basketball banner is the elephant in the room.
Freeman, like every other state tournament team, is three wins away from hanging a banner of their own – so close, yet so far away.
The Scotties open the tournament against Hoquiam.
Beyond that? Win the first game first, then worry about who’s next.
Aside from Paukert’s grin, which is turned up loud, the rest of the workout Monday at Freeman takes place with a quiet determination.
It’s a reflection of second-year Freeman coach Marty Jessett, who has now coached at nearly every level of high school basketball in the area – from St. George’s of Northeast B League to Cheney of Great Northern to University of Greater Spokane.
Jessett stepped down as boys coach at U-Hi to devote more time to his kids, but he admits he always felt like he had more to give, if and when he found the right spot.
“I had my eye on Freeman for a while, waiting for the right time,” he said.
Freeman is old school. Kids grow up the way Paukert and Maine grew up, playing sports together with their friends, joining the AAU program in the third grade. It’s a place where friends and family support friends and family.
All teams start out with instant chemistry because the players are relatives or friends, or both. And almost everyone, it seems, has an older brother or sister who played.
Jessett said his players all have a common, fundamental base for the game forged in all those hours playing AAU basketball.
The Scotties have worked through injuries that would have derailed another team. Paukert, the team’s point guard, broke an ankle playing football and missed the start of the season, and his replacement did the same.
“I’ve had seven kids play point guard for us this year,” Jessett said. “For this team, it’s just ‘Next man up.’ ”
But there’s something more at play, too, Paukert insists.
Paukert, Maine and their friends grew up idolizing the players on the Freeman varsity. They wanted to grow up to be just like them.
“They still do,” Paukert said. “We put on clinics for them – coach Jessett tells us what to do, but we’re the ones putting it on.
“When you have kids watching you and making you their role model, you don’t want to let the down. Not even a little bit.”
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