If you ask folks what type of sports town Spokane is, you’ll get as many different answers as the number of people you ask. At any one time it could be a running town, a wrestling town or an outdoor sports town.
This year, though, it’s a high school basketball town.
The area boasts five undefeated teams heading into district play this week: boys Gonzaga Prep (4A, 20-0), Freeman (1A, 19-0) and St. George’s (2B, 20-0); girls Central Valley (4A, 20-0) and Medical Lake (1A, 19-0).
In addition, there are 20 boys teams and 23 girls teams rated in the top 20 of their classifications according to the WIAA’s end-of-season RPI calculations.
The Greater Spokane League has the No. 1 team in both boys and girls in the state’s highest classification, with G-Prep’s boys and CV’s girls taking top honors. One-loss East Valley (2A) and Colton (1B) girls are also rated No. 1.
That’s a strong representation from the eastern third of the state.
“I think that a casual observer would say, yeah, there’s good basketball being played over here,” Gonzaga Prep boys coach Matty McIntyre said. “Certainly on the boys side we can speak to Ferris and Richland and us. There’s some talented kids on this side of the state.”
“We’ve always on this side of the state had some good teams,” CV girls coach Freddie Rehkow said.
“I’m the same way Matty is – just winning over here isn’t our end goal. We want to take care of business all the way around. We’ve got good teams here and I think we’re going to see that as we go against the MCC (in districts).”
Rehkow’s star pupil concurred.
“I think it’s really cool to show up at the state tournament with two Spokane teams No. 1, really showing what Spokane’s all about,” said CV’s Lexie Hull, the reigning girls’ Gatorade player of the year. “Just representing the east side well.”
The depth of talented teams should make for exciting district tournaments this week across the region.
In addition to the Gonzaga Prep boys, the GSL placed three other teams in the top 20: Ferris (6), Lewis and Clark (8) and Central Valley (16).
The Bullpups are led by potential state player of the year Anton Watson. Just a junior, the 6-foot-7 Watson has already given an oral commitment to continue his basketball career at Gonzaga.
A GSL title was a goal for the Bullpups, but Watson said there’s more to come.
“We have a lot more to do,” Watson said. “We can get better, every game. Richland will be coming for us, Ferris will be coming for us. And it’ll just get harder.”
McIntyre described the mindset of G-Prep’s long-range goals.
“We kind of talk about the season being broken up into different parts. Part one is over,” he explained. “We’ve learned a lot over the course of the season. We have a long ways to go yet and a lot of challenges ahead of us.”
He agreed with Watson that the Bullpups still have some growing to do.
“We still need improvement in many areas. The good news on that point is we haven’t peaked too early. I think our best basketball is still ahead of us.”
Bad news for everyone else in 4A.
The Central Valley girls just completed their third consecutive undefeated regular season, led once again by seniors Lexie and Lacie Hull, 6-foot-2 twins committed to Stanford for next season.
The Hulls have lost just six games total in their high school career. They own one state title, as sophomores in 2016, to go with last year’s disappointment of being upset in a quarterfinal game and fifth-place showing.
“They’ve worked really hard and to go the last three years in league undefeated that’s a testament to how hard they work,” CV coach Rehkow said.
“It’s definitely a thing (going undefeated) we want to get every year, but it’s not our end goal,” Lexie Hull said. “We’re just shooting for that last game of the year. Hopefully we get there.”
Hoping to stand in the Bears’ way at the district tourney are No. 14-rated Lewis and Clark (13-7) and No. 20 University (13-7). The Tigers, led by juniors Jacinta Buckley and Dominique Arquette, have won six of their last seven games and U-Hi has gone 13-3 since dropping its first four games of the season.
Mt. Spokane boys (15-5, No. 19) and girls (11-9) are the top-seeded teams in their respective district tournaments. The girls team is led by four juniors, all being recruited by college teams.
Aspyn Adams is a returning first-team all-GSL guard and the team’s shooter. Twin sister Averi describes herself a pass-first player and more of a vocal on-court leader. Emily Nelson stands 6-foot and does a lot of the inside work and Alyssa Powell transitions from front to backcourt.
“These four were all freshmen when we got here so they know and understand our expectations and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Wildcats coach David Pratt said.
The Wildcats know first-hand how important the top seed and first-round bye – and one of the district’s two automatic bids to regionals – can be.
“Last year, we had to travel to Seattle three weekends in a row,” Averi Adams said. “It was really tough for us. This year should be better, at least travel-wise.”
Since they are the top seed in the district tournament, the No. 1-rated East Valley girls (18-1) can do no worse than a trip to a crossover game. Looming ahead, though, is a potential third matchup against Clarkston (15-4, No. 10), which is the only team to knock off the Knights this season.
“This is a tough league, and I think the RPI showed that,” East Valley coach Rob Collins said. “I thought that after we lost that one game, at Clarkston, that we would be knocked out of the No. 1 spot. But we weren’t.”
Junior Genesis Wilkinson is the team’s prime offensive and defensive weapon in the low post, and sophomore Brie Holecek is in her second season as a key offensive contributor.
East Valley will have had 11 days off by the time they play in the district title game on Feb. 13.
“Having that kind of time off is tough because you still want to maintain your competitive edge, but at the same time you don’t want to get anyone hurt,” Collins said. “Thankfully, we’ve gotten used to it over the last few years.”
The Freeman boys have been in this position before. The past two seasons they have finished as runners-up at state. This year they take the confidence of an undefeated season into the postseason.
At what point in the season did they think going undefeated was possible?
“I think at the end of last year, when we lost to Zillah in the championship,” said junior Dylan Oja. “We knew that we had almost everybody back and we had a really good summer and spring on our traveling team.”
“We’ve had a target on our backs since last year,” said senior Michael Coumont. “Everyone in our league has come at us and given their best shot. It motivates us to play better, work harder every day.”
With eight seniors and junior Oja available, there could be a different star every night.
“For sure,” said Coumont. “Everyone can score. We have five shooters out there. We just look for the open guy and whoever gets it, gets it.”
“We’ve been playing together since the fifth grade,” Coumont continued. “We have great chemistry and it just works out well.”
Newport (15-5, No. 9) and Lakeside (11-9, No. 18) join Freeman as highly-rated in State 1A.
The undefeated Medical Lake girls are rated fifth, while Lakeside (15-5) is No. 8.
“We just take it game to game,”coach Kyle Lundberg said. “RPI is what it is. All we can control is the game we play.”
The Cardinals have just one senior and didn’t know the makeup of the roster until opening night.
“At tryouts it was every man for themselves,” sophomore Jayda Noble said. “No one knew if they were going to be on varsity or not. The competitive level was just beyond.”
Maybe the uncertainty of the roster kept the focus on performance and not long-term goals.
“I don’t think we ever realized we were going to be good,” Noble confessed.
“This year we’ve been really difficult to defend because we do have so many weapons on our team,” Lundberg said. “Any game someone else could step up.”
Noble said the closeness of the girls on the team off the court helps them during games. “Our coach has us do a lot of team functions,” she said. “We play for each other and I feel like that’s why we play so good.”
If there’s pressure about being ranked so highly, the Cardinals try to compartmentalize it.
“We do think about it and sometimes it’s scary,” said senior Makayla Geiger. “Like, whoa, we’re in the top 10 in the state, or whatever. But we don’t let it affect how we play. We just play our game and be who we are.”
St. George’s boys, rated No. 3, lead a quartet of highly rated squads into the district tourney, with Liberty (18-2, No. 4), Colfax (15-5, No. 13) and Northwest Christian (13-8, No. 15) not far behind.
St. George’s teammates Cade Peplinksi, Mitchell Ward, Noah Halliburton-Link and Zach Steele have been playing together for more than 10 years.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about we’ve been playing since third grade together,” Steele said. “It’s been a long journey and hopefully it ends the right way in March when we win the state championship.”
The players know that finishing undefeated puts a target on their backs.
“Our coach made it apparent to us that we’re going to get everybody’s best game since we’re the No. 1 team in state,” said Halliburton-Link. “It can make teams’ seasons to beat an undefeated team.”
Ward talked about a bonding experience of the players staying together in a hotel during a tournament when the four were in fourth grade. He also managed a friendly jab at one of the others.
“Noah used to be the tallest one on our team (in grade school),” he said of Halliburton-Link, who is now the shortest. “He was our post.”
NWC is led by comeback player Josh Maynard – the only senior on the team – who missed almost all of last season with a broken wrist. At just 6-foot he’s the smallest post in the league, but that hasn’t kept him from averaging over 19 points and almost seven rebounds.
On the girls side, Davenport (17-3) is rated second in state, with St. George’s (15-5) seventh, Colfax (16-4) 10th, Liberty (13-7) No. 14 and Northwest Christian (15-5) 16th.
The 1B district and state tournaments could be a free-for-all. With seven boys and 11 girls programs in Eastern Washington rated in the top 20, the tourneys are up for grabs.
Boys: Pomeroy (18-2, No. 5), Odessa (18-2, No. 6), Wellpinit (14-6, No. 7), Almira/Coulee-Hartline (15-5, No. 10), Oakesdale (17-3, No. 14), Garfield-Palouse (14-5, No. 16), Cusick (14-5, No. 17)
Girls: Colton (17-1, No. 1), Pomeroy (15-4, No. 2), Almira/Coulee-Hartline (18-2, No. 5), Selkirk (17-3, No. 6), Oakesdale (15-5, No. 12), Inchelium (15-5, No. 13), Garfield-Palouse (10-7, No. 16), Touchet (8-7, No. 17), Wellpinit (11-7, No. 18), Valley Christian (13-7, No. 19)
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