One year ago, Taholah’s boys and girls basketball teams were preparing for the regional round in a season that saw the girls win state hardware for the first time and both teams in the state tournament.
Now, the Chitwhins find themselves in the same spot and are eager to make their marks on the regional and state levels.
On Friday night, the Taholah boys will take on Naselle for the fourth time this season. This contest, however, will be a winner-to-state, loser-out 1B regional game at Tumwater High School. Tipoff is at 8 p.m.
On Saturday, the Taholah girls will wake up in the Tri-Cities to take on Sunnyside Christian in a winner-to-state, loser-out 1B regional game at noon at Chiawana High School. Tipoff is at noon.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Taholah first-year girls head coach Karl Braden said. “We’ve accomplished (a district title), so now we’ll put in a full week of practice to get ready for regionals. This is big.”
Last season was a historic one for the Taholah girls. After winning a district title, the Chitwhins knocked off rival Neah Bay, 48-40, in the regionals to qualify for the state tournament at Spokane Arena.
From there, Taholah lost its first game, but rebounded for a pivotal 51-49 win over Mount Vernon Christian after trailing by eight at the half to clinch a state trophy. The Chitwhins took sixth and the senior-laden team celebrated.
Members of this season’s Taholah squad spent most of the season on the bench, watching and absorbing what was going on on court. The very young nine-girl roster had only one senior — Kalecia Underwood — and two eighth graders to go with its primarily freshman-sophomore lineup.
That means sophomore co-captains Nettie Grover and Denise Dolan have been teaching and guiding this team through the postseason maze. It also means that this is a vastly different team than the one that lifted a trophy last March.
“The only one who go in was Denise, but I got in once in a while,” Grover said after Taholah’s district championship win over Naselle on Saturday. “This year, it was a building process to get everyone going. Everyone has done a great job. Denise and I know what it is like at state, so we’ve been teaching the rest of the team on what it is like there.”
Taholah’s girls have taken one lesson from the state tournament last year — defense wins. The Chitwhins have been a defense-first team (35 opposition points per game this season) that has produced a solid transition offense on the other side of the court. It showed in their win over Naselle on Saturday, a grinding 36-28 district title-game win at Montesano.
“This team has its own identity,” Braden said. “They’ve went out and proved they can get back there. We stress patience with the ball and to play defense like we know they can.”
“We realize we can’t get into foul trouble,” Grover said. “We have to play smart defense and stay patient in order to get the offense going. (Against Naselle), our shots weren’t falling. So, we had to slow it down and we realized that once we got the defense down there, the offense would go.”
The Taholah boys’ offense has been going for several season, a high-octane style of fast-break, transition offense that is entertaining to watch and frustrating for teams to defend.
Last season, the Chitwhins used their offensive style to storm back from a 13-point deficit to Evergreen Lutheran to win their regional game, 64-61. However, it was a rude awakening at the state tournament — two frustrating losses to Neah Bay and Garfield-Palouse — in Spokane.
Now, flush with five seniors who have been playing together since grade school, Taholah is aiming for a run at what the girls achieved last year — a state trophy.
“That’s all we want is a state trophy,” Taholah junior forward Zach Cain said, “especially for the seniors. They deserve one.”
“That’s been the goal all season,” Taholah head coach Mike Rose said. “They’ve had plenty of motivation.
“The seniors have been playing together for a long time and they’ve played the same way the whole team,” Rose said. “I’ve been working with them to give them structure, some organization to play together. It has been a struggle at times, but they’ve played together really well. They’ve put in all of the hard work to get back to regionals and get back to state.”
Don’t get Rose wrong, Taholah can still put points on the board. The Chitwhins have averaged 73 points per game this season in accumulating a 21-2 record, a consistent top-10 ranking in the state 1B media poll and a No. 9 RPI ranking overall.
What Taholah has added to the offensive mix is structure, a half-court offense that can produce points when it can’t run and score. It has also added one lesson learned from last year’s state tournament appearance.
“We needed defense; that was big last year,” Cain said. “We got up there and realized we couldn’t stop (the other teams). This year, we’ve worked hard on our defense and learned how to play together. We didn’t know how to play together last year. We’ve established and learned what our roles are. That has helped us.”
Armed with experience and drive, Taholah’s two basketball teams are poised for a return trip to the state tournament. Of course, there is regional this weekend, but as Nettie Grover noted on Saturday, there is motivation to get to Spokane.
“We’re aiming to win at regionals and then drink chocolate milk at state,” Grover said. “In the locker rooms, they stocked them full of chocolate milk. So, we’re going to go back and drink chocolate milk.”
Rob Burns: (360) 537-3926; email@example.com; Twitter: @RobRVR