ABERDEEN — Kassie Koski and Lincoln Niemi are both children of local high school basketball coaches, but their similarities don’t stop there.
Both Koski and Niemi made 23-of-25 shots over two rounds of competition to claim titles in the 8-9 year-old girls and boys division, respectively, at the Northwest Region 1 Elks Hoop Shoot Finals on March 10 at Clark College in Vancouver.
With the victories, the youngsters punched their tickets to the finals, which will be held on Saturday, April 21 at Loyola University Chicago.
To get there both Niemi and Koski had to shoot their way through multiple rounds of competition that started at their local Elks lodges back in November and led through to the regional round in March. Facing some of the best free-throw shooters from Alaska, Idaho and Oregon, Niemi and Koski missed just two of a total 25 shots over two rounds to stake claim to the regional championship.
Shooting first in the regionals, Niemi, who is the son of Elma High School boys basketball coach Jeff Niemi, dominated the field. He went a perfect 10-for-10 to set the standard from the get-go in round one. The 9-year-old, who attends Elma Elementary School, then hit 13 of his 15 second-round shots, a bar so high that none of the other 11 competitors that followed could reach it.
“One kid had to make all his (second round) shots to win, but he missed two,” Lincoln said, offering up a jaw-dropping expression of disbelief when asked for his reaction after realizing he had won. “I was really proud and excited that I came out on top.”
For Koski, a fourth-grade student at Raymond Elementary competing in the Elks shoot for her second time, the event couldn’t have started off with a more ominous feel.
“I was very nervous because in warm-ups because (my competitors) were making all their shots and I wasn’t,” she said of her practice round. But being the daughter of Raymond High School girls basketball coach Jason Koski means you grew up in the gym, and once the competition started, Kassie’s ability to control her emotions made all the difference.
“(The nerves) went away right as I started shooting,” she said, recollecting a 9-of-10 first-round performance that gave her a three-shot lead heading into the second and final round.
As the last shooter in the final round, Koski knew she needed to hit eight of 15 shots to take the title.
“She didn’t want to shoot last. I think it gave her a little more anxiety,” Kassie’s father, Jason, said. “But she went out there and hit eight straight. It was crazy.”
Kassie finished the final round with a 13-of-15 mark, more than enough for the win and a regional title.
“I was happy and I couldn’t wait to tell everybody and call them,” she said about the victory.
Both Koski and Niemi have been training for the past month in preparation for the finals, having the luxury of ducking into their local high school gym with their fathers for some extra work.
“My dad said, ‘If you want to make nationals, you better get practicing,’” said Lincoln, who shoots upwards of 400-500 shots per day. “So I just practiced and he’s pushed me to be the best that I can and that’s all I’ve ever wished for.”
“At this point, we’ve kind of let her shoot when she wants to and she does,” said Jason Koski of his daughter’s regimen, adding that they’ve stuck with the same routine from the local tournament all the way through the regional finals. “She takes it upon herself and she likes it. … We never had to make her.”
At nationals, Koski and Niemi will be two of a total of 72 competitors competing for two prestigious honors: Winning an Elks Hoop Shoot national title and getting their name on a the Hoop Shoot plaque in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“I’m looking forward to being with family, trying to win and being in the HOF with (Larry) Bird and (Karl) Malone,” Lincoln said. “If I win, it’s going to be cool knowing that I’m only nine and in the basketball HOF.”
“I’d pick winning the national title because then your name would be everywhere, being the national champion,” said Kassie, who gets ribbed by her family when she wears her “WA state champion” sweatshirt.
“We give her a hard time, ‘Oh, the ‘Champ’ is here,’” Jason joked.
While the trip to Chicago represents a chance to play for the prestige of a national championship and an opportunity for a family vacation in one of the country’s famous cities, the life lessons learned are the greatest rewards.
“I think (the experience) is a good life lesson that hard work pays off,” Jason said. “All eyes will be on Kassie, … but just being able to experience this as a family is great.”
“One of the best things about this competition is that it teaches kids that if you put in the time, you can get better and better and really good at something,” Jeff said. “I think Lincoln has seen that and that it can work in other parts of his life.”
The Elks Hoop Shoot National Championship begins at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 21. Follow Kassie and Lincoln’s progress using the Elks Hoop Shoot shot-tracker at elks.org/hoopshoot on the day of the event.