You can get a good idea of how a team might perform before a big game by watching them during pre-game warmups. Case in point, Elma’s date with the La Center Wildcats for the 1A District 4 championship on Wednesday.
As Elma took the court at Rochester High School before tip-off, the Eagles — who had reached the district final in each of the two previous seasons — were all smiles, exuding a jovial energy that showed they were relaxed and having fun.
By contrast, La Center didn’t exhibit much emotion while warming up. There wasn’t much chatter coming from the Wildcats sidelines during pre-game rituals.
Perhaps, that was to hide the butterflies or perhaps it was because they knew what was about to come their way.
Elma used its tried-and-true formula of an outstanding defense combined with a stellar game from the league MVP en route to a 66-40 victory to claim their second straight 1A District 4 title.
“I know if I’m not having fun and energetic, I won’t play well,” said Elma’s Quin Mikel, one of the architects of the ease the Eagles exhibited at game time. “It’s contagious and starting it feels good when my teammates catch on and it carries on through the game.”
“Pre-game, we were serious and knew we had to get it done,” Sackrider said. “But we knew we had to have fun and that really helps keep our energy up.”
It was apparent pretty early on that Elma was determined to win a second-straight district championship. The Eagles (16-6 overall) jumped out to a 6-0 lead on back-to-back 3-pointers from Kali Rambo and Kaelyn Burgher before the game was a minute old.
La Center (14-8) cut Elma’s early lead to 8-7 on a basket by Natasha Lewis halfway through the first quarter, but Elma’s defense began to assert control after that, just two points over the next four minutes of play.
The Eagles took advantage, taking a 14-9 lead on Ella Moore’s offensive rebound and putback with 15 seconds left in the first frame.
“(La Center) is known to shoot threes, so we had to shove our 2-3 zone out further than usual,” Elma guard Jillian Bieker said regarding Elma’s defensive strategy. “We weren’t expecting them to drive so much, but I think (Elma center) Jalyn (Sackrider) really pulled through and kept us above water.”
Elma’s defense continued to dominate in a second quarter that saw the Eagles clamp down and, in essence, put the game away. After the Wildcats’ Alyse Webberley buried a three to open the period, Elma held the Trico League champs scoreless over the following five minutes of game time while the Eagles offense began to heat up itself.
Sackrider scored after grabbing an offensive rebound and was followed by a pair of Bieker free throws. Elma extended its lead to double digits 15 seconds later when Bieker stole the ball and went in for a breakaway layup that gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead with 3:30 left in the first half.
But Elma wasn’t done yet as a Rambo 3-point play followed by a score down low from Sackrider extended the lead to 27-12 with 2:30 left.
Elma took a 32-18 lead into the half after Rambo hit another field goal and Sackrider hit 3-of-4 free throws in the final 1:30 of the second quarter.
After the half, La Center continued to have no answers for Elma’s pressure defense or how to stop Sackrider and the Eagles’ offensive rebounding.
Sackrider, who scored 15 points in the first half, stayed hot as she opened the third quarter by grabbing an offensive rebound and hitting a jump shot for a 34-18 lead.
Elma increased its lead to more than 20 points when Bieker hit a three off an inbound pass, making it a 44-23 ballgame with 2:35 left in the third.
After a three from Sackrider, a Mikel bucket off an assist from Bieker, and a Bieker free-throw to close out the quarter, Elma held an insurmountable 49-25 lead heading into the fourth quarter, one in which the Eagles would get some of their bench players significant court time.
Sackrider had a monster game, scoring 31 points to lead all scorers. The senior and two-time league MVP said her teammates ability to get her the ball on the move was key.
“I feel like the cutting and finding the open lanes worked a lot,” said Sackrider, who scored her points on 13-of-27 shooting.
Bieker and Rambo added 11 points each while Mikel scored eight for Elma.
As the final buzzer sounded, Elma’s demeanor was much the same as it was in the pre-game warm-ups. There was a lot of laughing and smiling and hugging as the Eagles won consecutive district titles for the first time in head coach Lisa Johnson’s 19-year career at the helm of the Eagles.
“We came out this season knowing we wanted to do this for ourselves, our coach and our community,” Mikel said. “We wanted to bring home the district title again for them.”
“They’ve earned it,” Johnson said after receiving the district championship trophy and cutting down the net. “It’s hard to win a district championship, especially to win it back-to-back.”
The veteran coach, who will be stepping down at the conclusion of the season, said winning two straight district titles in the final two years at the head of the Elma program helps make the journey feel complete.
“I think it’s kind of a full-circle moment,” she said. “Having coached at Elma for 19 years and wrapping things up, it’s a good thing to end on.”
Elma will await to hear its state regional round opponent, which will likely be announced this weekend.
La Center will face Montesano, which won its consolation-bracket game 43-29 over King’s Way Christian on Wednesday, in a winner-to-regionals-loser-out game at 6 p.m. on Friday at WF West High School.