The last time the Elma Eagles reached a boys basketball district semifinal game, none of the current Eagles players had been born.
But when the final buzzer sounded in a 1A District 4 semifinal matchup Wednesday in Elma, the Eagles added to school history with a convincing 61-47 victory over the La Center Wildcats
Elma (6-5 overall) ended up the No. 1 seed out of the 1A Evergreen League in the most peculiar of fashions. A few short weeks ago, Elma was sitting in third place, looking up at county rivals Montesano and Hoquiam for the top two — and only — playoff spots for the downsized district tournament.
But the league was flipped on its ear after COVID concerns caused Hoquiam to outright cancel its remaining sports for the 2021 season, while Montesano lost the services of its scoring leader and MVP candidate, Trace Ridgway.
Meanwhile, the Eagles were able to avoid COVID cancellations and have remained relatively healthy this season, thus finding themselves as the proverbial “last man standing” in the race for the league’s No. 1 seed.
The Eagles jumped out to a 14-8 lead after one quarter against a Wildcat team that has had its own fair share of adversity this season. The Wildcats (3-3 overall) played just five games heading into Wednesday’s game after being quarantined for two weeks this season due to COVID.
Compounding issues for La Center was the loss of starting senior point guard Isaiah Romero to a knee injury, leaving the Wildcats without its floor general entering Wednesday’s semifinal.
And the opportunistic Eagles took advantage.
Elma stretched its lead to nine, at 27-18, on a Canon Seaberg drive and score with 42 seconds left in the first half. He was also fouled and converted the free throw. Elma built that lead, despite getting into foul trouble in the second quarter, with senior starters Derique Richey, Brady Johnston and Cobey Moore all on the bench with two fouls apiece.
But La Center never let the Eagles fly too far away in the first half, scoring on a Bryson Jones bucket in the low block, followed by a free throw from guard Jordan Nixon to cut the Eagles’ lead to 27-21 at the half.
In the third quarter, Elma pushed the lead back out to eight on a Seaberg steal and layup to make it a 33-25 game with 6:30 to go in the quarter. But the Wildcats roared right back when Nixon hit a corner 3-pointer to make it a 33-30 game a minute later.
With 3:35 to go in the period, Elma sophomore guard Blake Hammack drilled a trey to put Elma up seven at 39-32. But the two teams would be separated by no more than seven for the rest of the quarter, as the Eagles took a 41-36 lead into the final eight minutes of the game.
With Richey, Johnston and Moore still in foul trouble with four each in the final frame, Elma was able to push the lead to double digits and put the game away.
Led by a host of Eagles, Elma went on a 10-0 run — highlighted by a coast-to-coast layup from guard Cason Seaberg and some eye-catching athletic rebounding from Moore — to take a commanding 52-37 lead with just over four minutes left in the game.
La Center would get no closer than 12 points the rest of the way, as Canon Seaberg hit 4-of-6 free throws in the final minute to ice the game, sending the Eagles to heights they have rarely soared.
“I just told them that we are in the district championship for the first time since 2001 and we just clinched what I consider a regional berth, even though there is no regional championship (this season), for the first time since 2001. That’s a theme lately. It’s been 20 years,” Elma head coach Jeff Niemi said of what he told his team before an audible roar that could be heard throughout the gym resounded from the Eagles locker room. “They are excited about that and it’s a credit to the seniors that have been through some tough days. They just stuck with it and have stuck together as a team and it is paying off for them.”
“I personally think it’s crazy,” said Elma senior forward — and arguably the Eagles’ most consistent player — Nick Church, said of the win. “After the way we started this year, we never would have thought we would have made it this far. But we really picked it up and became more of a team together and now we’re just rolling.”
Canon Seaberg led Elma with 16 points with Church scoring 13 points to go along with three steals and three assists.
Moore scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds for Elma, which Niemi said was a key to the Eagles victory.
“Lately, we have been in foul trouble and our depth has led us to these wins. … And our defense just held us together,” he said. “We rebounded the ball really well and (La Center) didn’t get multiple shots. We went zone pretty much the entire game and held them to contested, tough shots.”
“To hold a team to 47 points at the varsity level is good defense, for sure,” added Church.
Elma will host King’s Way Christian in the championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ve been doing these checklists,” Church said. “First time since 2001 since we’ve done this; first time ever since we’ve done this. We just got to check off a couple of more boxes.”
On Saturday, Elma will try to check off one more box.