Sports

Pirates primed for playoffs

Senior Charles Hoffman shoots over the Charles Wright defenders Feb. 13. - Bill Gage photo
Senior Charles Hoffman shoots over the Charles Wright defenders Feb. 13.
— image credit: Bill Gage photo

The Vashon High School boys Pirates basketball team completed a perfect Nisqually League season last week by taking their last two games from Life Christian and Charles Wright Academy. This year’s title is the fifth in a row for the successful program under coach Andy Sears.

It was Senior Night when the Pirates took the court at home against the Charles Wright Tarriers on Friday. Prior to the start of the game, Pirate seniors and their parents were introduced to the cheers of a packed Pirate gym.

Later, in a poignant gesture of his respect for what these boys have accomplished, Pirate coach Andy Sears called a timeout midway through the fourth period, and had the seniors take a collective bow. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation for the six, who stood at the center court for what was likely the last time in Pirate uniform.

This group of kids had been on Sears’ radar screen well before they first set foot on the Vashon High School court. Nearly all were introduced to basketball as kindergartners through Vashon Island Youth Basketball. In fifth grade, a core of these kids started playing together as a team in a Seattle Parks and Recreation program.

There, they had success against teams from all over Seattle. They took that success with them to McMurray Middle School, where they were league champions in eighth grade under coach Phil Ross.

Over the last few years, these seniors have been joined by highly skilled and competitive underclassmen to round out the current formidable Pirate team.

“This is probably the best team I’ve ever coached,” Sears observed after a strong win a few weeks back.

Indeed, this year’s Pirates are considered by many observers to be the state’s best 1A team and among Washington’s better high school teams — period. The consistency with which the Pirates have played all season long speaks to their maturity and commitment. Though they won’t say it publicly, their hearts are set on bringing the big gold ball home to Vashon from the state tournament in Yakima.

A big contribution from among the underclassmen is junior post player, John Gage.

At six feet nine inches tall, Gage is an intimidating presence down low. He holds the team all-time record for most blocked shots in a game — 9.

Gage’s athleticism and footwork, honed by years of soccer before committing to basketball, allow him to do more than many players his size.

He has a sweet touch on the ball, which makes him a danger to score from anywhere.

Going into the last year’s Tri-District tournament as the Nisqually League’s most valuable player, Gage sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer in overtime to send the Pirates to the state tournament. Gage currently averages a team-high 16 points per game and is being recruited by several Division I colleges.

Gage is joined by senior Charlie Hoffman, a six feet eight inch presence who, like Gage, can alter and block inside shots.

Hoffman is an excellent rebounder and will capitalize with offensive put-backs. He also has the knack for hitting the three-pointer at crucial moments, as he did against league rival Cascade Christian in their recent game on the Island.

Guiding the team is senior point guard Max Burnham. He is an efficient scorer, able to knock down the three and good as gold from the line. He can attack the hoop, but often sacrifices his own point production by directing the ball to the right player.

Perhaps Burnham’s biggest contribution to the team is his calm and unflappable presence. Having been a varsity player each of his four years, Burnham brings a maturity to his team that is evidenced by the team’s consistent high level of performance, whether attacking a much weaker opponent or standing up to an assault by a seasoned foe.

With Burnham at point, senior Thomas Timm-Skove and sophomore Alex Wegner are free to roam.

And roam they do — right through traffic to the hoop.

Each has the ability to split defenders and go up strong, forcing opponents to drop off the inside big men. Each is also a skilled defender.

Wegner is a lanky six foot, seven inches tall, which causes problems for his usually smaller foes.

Timm-Skove, at “only” six-foot-four, has a wingspan like a condor. He uses it defensively for blocks and steals and offensively to lift the ball over and around defenders in improbable ways.

One of the luxuries Sears has been given is a deep bench. He goes to his bench early and often — in close games and blowouts — without losing team production.

First off the bench is senior Chris Pieterick, the shortest member of the team. What Pieterick lacks in size, he makes up for in hustle — he was voted “Mr. Hustle” by the team last season. Opposing teams are often caught flat-footed when Pieterick comes into the game. Whether forcing a turnover or spotting up for the three, Pieterick often makes an instant impact. He is a quality defender whose efforts energize the fans.

Juniors Quinn Holert, Matt Kerns and Elias Weston are not biding their time for the seniors to move on. They make contributions each and every game.

Kerns, like Pieterick, brings a defensive intensity that forces turnovers. Holert and Weston are good ball handlers and skilled attackers with the ability to make a last second assist or hit the runner or pull up jumper if the defense collapses. All are dangerous outside shooters who can consistently knock down the three.

Seniors Odin Jacobovitch and Michael Stoffer and sophomore Kyle Bakker are big, strong boys who are called upon to do the heavy lifting down low. They take up space and patrol the paint.

Jacobovitch, like Burnham, is experienced, having been a varsity player the past three campaigns.

Stoffer is strong and athletic with a good touch around the basket.

Bakker uses his strength to finish shots despite contact and seems to have an enormous upside, visibly improving with every outing.

Team managers senior

Jake Theno and junior Christian Hasson are spark plugs for the team. They take care of the mundane issues of water, towels and supplies.

But come game night, they are at the center of the team huddle to fire up their friends, and their passion for the game is contagious.

These Pirates have worked hard to achieve the excellence they display. As a team, they play 50 to 60 games in the off-season.

Sears and his assistants, Chris Youman and Shawn Hoffman, have supported their players’ commitment.

Not only do they sacrifice a share of their private lives during the season, but they remain engaged in the summer, organizing practices and traveling with the boys to camps and tournaments.

This off-season activity gives the boys an edge when they come back to the school program in the fall.

Sears’ basketball philosophy is to attack on offense and defense.

“We want to get the rim, get a foul or shoot the three-pointer,” he said. “The most successful teams believe in that. Ever since we’ve gone to that, our winning percentage has gone through the roof.”

And who can argue? Since 2005, Sears’ teams have a cumulative game record of 103-19, with five consecutive Nisqually League titles and a third-place finish at the state tournament in 2006.

Offensively, the Pirates share the ball well. Defensively, they are relentless and help each other out, allowing few seams for opponents to exploit.

This season, Sears added a full-court trapping press to take advantage of his team’s depth, speed and athleticism. It has been very effective at creating turnovers and wearing teams down. It has also opened up a transition game, the boys pushing the ball down the court in a choreographed dash for the hoop ahead of their opponents.

It was just this kind of mayhem that Sears wanted his team to unleash on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at Life Christian.

Many teams, with league title in hand, would have gone on cruise control. But Sears challenged his boys to “Get after ’em…like dogs!”

Woof! The Pirates attacked early — with baskets by John Gage from 12 feet and a lay-in off a fast break by Max Burnham — and never trailed the whole game.

While the Eagles took advantage of early Pirate misses to tie it at 4, the “woof” returned as Vashon scrapped for boards and harassed the Eagles for turnovers.

A 15-0 Pirate run, highlighted by a Gage breakaway dunk, put Vashon firmly in control by the end of the quarter, at 19-7. The Pirates went on to win 69-40.

Against Charles Wright on Friday, Feb. 13, the Pirates started the game on a 9-4 run and harried the Tarriers into early foul trouble. Gage and Wegner combined for 35 points in the 60-29 win.

The Pirates move into subdistrict play against Port Townsend at Orting High School at 7 p.m. Saturday. A win would give them top seed from District 3 into the Tri-District Tournament and would guarantee a trip to the state tournament.

Tri-Districts begin the following week at Mountlake Terrace High School. A loss against Port Townsend would send the Pirates to a loser-out game at Vashon High School on Tuesday, Feb. 24.

For detailed summaries from last week’s games, visit www.vashonbasketball.com.

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