Sports

Boys capture basketball state championship title

The Vashon High School boys Pirates basketball team achieved their goal of the season — bringing the big gold ball back to the Island, and with it the 1A state high school basketball championship title on Saturday.

In a game the local Yakima Herald described as “one of the most dominant championship-game performances in the 52 years of the Class 1A tournament,” the Pirates rolled to a 49-24 win in the Yakima SunDome over the King’s High School Knights of north Seattle.

Pirate junior John Gage was recognized individually as the tournament’s most valuable player, while teammate Thomas Timm-Skove brought back tournament second team honors.

The Pirates started out the season as the number-one ranked 1A team.

They held that ranking the entire season, with a huge target on their backs for each and every game.

That they survived and thrived on this pressure, and put together a 26-1 record in the process — including taking the gold ball in Yakima — is a testament to their focus, determination and hard work.

It was a redemption of sorts for last year, when the then-highly ranked team was devastated by the loss of three players because of infractions of team rules.

Crippled emotionally, the Pirates limped through the TriDistrict tournament and finished without placing at State.

From that final loss at last year’s State tournament, these same boys returned with a renewed sense of purpose. Their shared dream had vanished, and they committed themselves, as a team, to reclaiming it.

All good friends, as well as teammates, they hung out together and renewed their mutual commitment day in and day out.

Athletes worked on their games over the summer. As a team, they played a busy off-season schedule of games and tournaments, all the while enjoying each other’s company.

When the season finally started, Coach Andy Sears unveiled a demanding non-league schedule to provide a counterpoint and reality check to weaker Nisqually League opponents.

Certain qualities have defined this team throughout the season. They defend with a passion. With their size, speed and commitment to chasing down every loose ball, they cover the court like a blanket. They raised this to an art in Yakima, suffocating opponents and leaving them stunned, forcing opponents into turnovers and poor shot selection.

They overwhelmingly out-rebounded opponents so that, even when the Pirates were not shooting well, they were able to get second and third opportunities.

On offense, the team exploited its multiple weapons. With height inside and great ball control on the perimeter, the Pirates eventually found seams to exploit. When defenses focused on the big men inside, the Pirates attacked from the wings or nailed the three. When defenders guarded the perimeter, huge spaces opened up inside for the “bigs” to operate.

Gage is a “big” who had some of his best career games in Yakima leading to his tournament MVP honors. He averaged more than 20 points per game during the tournament against bruising defenses. But a single star does not win team championships. Gage’s game was enhanced by teammates who were not afraid to shoot or attack when he was handcuffed inside.

Notably, Timm-Skove and Alex Wegner averaged 12 and 9 points per game, respectively. Timm-Skove also drew the most challenging defensive assignments throughout the tournament with huge success, holding King’s Ryan Hoff scoreless.

Coming into the SunDome March 4, there were still questions about how the Pirates would fare in the tournament atmosphere. Other teams, including King’s, have long histories of success in the post-season. Local teams enjoy the spotlight in front of large crowds and often upset teams from across the mountains. All of them would have liked nothing better than to bring down the state’s top-ranked team.

Opening against the lowly seeded Ilwaco, the Pirates displayed their size, speed and skill. Despite a slow start, the Pirates held a 27-16 margin at the half. In the third quarter, they kicked their game into gear to rack up a 54-27 win.

The following night, against the Lake Roosevelt Raiders, the Pirates put together a more convincing statement. Finishing the half with a relatively narrow 30-23 margin, the Pirates exploded in the third.

They brought the best of their defensive pressure to bear on the run-and-gun Raiders.

When the Pirates’ Max Burnham hit a three early in the third, he ignited a 21-7 knockout run. The Pirates cruised to a 73-50 win, leaving the impression that they truly belonged in the top tier.

The Pirates’ match on Friday was against the highly respected Bellevue Christian Vikings.

The Pirates asserted their dominance early. Opening on a 10-0 run, they demonstrated that they were indeed a dangerous force.

The Vikings look stunned as Vashon continued to press toward a 21-11 first quarter lead. The Vikings roared back in the second quarter on the back of five three-pointers (they eventually finished the game with a record-setting 13).

Pirate fans were feeling a bit queasy by this assault and wondering how long Bellevue Christian could keep it up.

The answer to that was delivered by the Pirates in the third quarter. Holding the Vikings to just two points while scoring 14, they put pressure on the Viking sharpshooters that they could not shoulder. Coach Andy Sears later credited the maturity of his team to having withstood the assault “without folding the tent.”

Wegner played perhaps his best game of the tournament, ending with 15 points and two steals.

On Saturday, the atmosphere was tense but diluted. Perhaps a little like a fizzy soda in which the ice has melted. By the 9 p.m. final, every other team had been eliminated, and many participants had already begun the trek home.

The final two teams were from west of the Cascades, so there was no large contingent of local fans.

Neither school’s band was present. The Pirate band had left the day before because of budgetary constraints. And Saturday tournament games are played on the big stage, with the two courts opened up to form one spacious expanse.

The cavernous SunDome can swallow up a large crowd in a hurry. Still, the sizeable crowds on each side of the gym were rocking. A sea of King’s red on one side. A green, gold and black Vashon tide on the other.

Vashon had managed to retain a large contingent of fans who had braved the stormy passes to witness this historic event. The student section was filled with exuberant representatives of the Vashon High student body.

The Pirates were decked out in their black-and-green away game uniforms, squaring off for the second time this season with the Knights in their whites.

For the final night, an NBA-style introductory event was produced. The teams were introduced under a weave of spotlights to the sounds of electro-pop synthesized music.

Gage controlled the tip-off to Timm-Skove who drove in for a quick two points, as he has done many times this season. Less than five clicks had come off the clock.

King’s answered back with 2 points off an inbound play to tie. Red tide eruption. This seesaw of raw emotion and team pride continued through the quarter.

Vashon pushed an 8-0 run to take initial command. During this, Gage put down a jump hook in traffic, and Timm-Skove drove across the lane and pulled up for a basket. Gage, drawing a crowd, found Burnham underneath on the weak side for another. Suddenly down 12-4, King’s called a timeout at 2:04 to regroup.

Out of the timeout, they were able to shrink the margin to a Pirate 12-10 lead by quarter’s end. Pirate miscues early in the second quarter allowed King’s to stay close, though they never led.

Stepped-up Pirate intensity, including a taken charge by Chris Pieterick and a steal by Wegner, disrupted Knights offensive rhythm. Gaining their defensive composure, the Pirates went back to their offensive game of getting the ball into Gage. Ending the second quarter on an 8-0 run, the Pirates held a 24-15 half-time lead.

To say the Pirates came out strong in the third period of the championship game is an understatement. They suffocated the Knights in a 14-0 third period display of awesome defense and patient offense. Burnham, missing an early three, chased down his own rebound along the baseline and laid in two points.

Charlie Hoffman took a short pass from Gage midway through the period and put down a monster slam to emphasize Pirate dominance. Then Gage, despite being seriously hammered, pivoted around in the paint and sunk yet another jumper for two more.

Following that score, he charged back on defense and pinned a Knight layup against the glass for a block. When the refs did give Gage the benefit of free throws for the physical abuse he was taking inside, he was a perfect eight for eight from the stripe for the game (and nearly as perfect throughout the tournament).

Taking a commanding 38-15 lead into the fourth period, the Pirates did not let up. The frustrated Knights could only resort to fouling in their attempts to pry the Pirates’ hands off the ball. This put the Pirates on the line for bonus free throws throughout much of the final period as they glided to victory.

The Pirate side of the arena erupted into joyous celebration at the conclusion of the game. During the trophy presentation and as the team cut down the nets, the Pirate nation was dancing in the aisles, many with tears streaming down their faces.

“Unbelievable!” was about the only word that fans, team members, and coaches could express.

The 2008-09 season was as near to perfect as can be achieved.

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