It had been well over a decade since Meridian could even think of challenging Class 1A power King’s in girls basketball.
These Trojans (18-7), though, are something else entirely – in many more ways than one.
Fourth-year point guard Ryley Zapien, who had played only on losing teams until this season, scored the first five points and ended the game celebrating with a double bandage on her nose and cotton inside it.
Still, the unselfish 5-foot-8 leader didn’t let her injuries keep her from enjoying her most memorable day in sports. Meridian beat King’s 48-42 in a thrilling and inspiring winner-to-state game in the Class 1A Northwest District Tournament on Saturday at Mountlake Terrace High.
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Zapien exited the game three times because of blood and pain, but every time she came back seemingly more poised and spirited. She was ready to play in a high-stakes fourth quarter that sent the Trojans to state for the first time in 13 years.
“I think I’ll need stitches,” Zapien said. “I got hurt when I collided with a King’s girl’s head, then I did it again. But if there is a scar, it will give me a memory of an awesome win for Meridian.”
WHAT IT MEANS
King’s is done for the season, but coach Mark Gilmore’s spunky Meridian team will play in the new system of state regionals Feb. 24 or 25 in the round of teams rated Nos. 9 through 16 in the new Ratings Performance Index in a loser-out game. If the Trojans survive, they’ll play March 1 in Yakima against one of the four losers of the 1-8 round in another loser-out game.
If the Trojans advance, they’ll qualify for the three-game, eight-team, double-elimination portion of the tournament at the Sun Dome.
The Trojans’ pride was obvious from their screaming in the postgame locker-room delirium. They’ll join traditional local powers at state – Squalicum, Lynden, Lynden Christian and Lummi among the boys and Lynden Christian, Lynden and Mount Baker among the girls.
This is the first time in many years that three of Whatcom County’s 1A girls teams qualified for state.
Ellesse FitzGerald, a junior guard with speed and nerve, led Meridian with a game-high 19 points, with nine in the fourth quarter. She shot 7 for 19 with sound decision-making when the Trojans needed her most.
The dynamic and athletic junior Kyrin Baklund finished with nine points, six rebounds and four steals.
Zapien scored seven, including two three throws before the game started because of a technical foul on a King’s scorebook listing error. Zapien opened the game with a 3-pointer for a 5-0 lead but soon lost most of the opening quarter after her nose was bloodied.
Kiana Gray provided muscle and determination on defense, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring a big basket in the fourth quarter for a 42-38 lead.
Two reserves, junior Bryn Magnusson and freshman Jolee Sipma, made major contributions. Magnusson finished with six points, eight rebounds and three steals, plus a free throw with 11 seconds to go for the clinching point. Sipma went 4 for 4 from the line in the second half, including two free throws for a 47-42 lead with 26 seconds left.
“Bryn has had three surgeries and two ACL injuries,” said Gilmore, who came to Meridian the same year Zapien joined the team as a freshman. “I remember how well she played as a freshman. We got her back (from her latest recovery) after Christmas. We’re sure glad she’s ready in the playoffs.”
‘THIS IS UNREAL’
“This is unreal. It’s awesome to think this could happen in my last season of high school sports,” said Zapien, who is glad her talented teammates can relieve the pressure on her to score. “Passing is my favorite part of the game.”
Gilmore was thrilled for his team.
“Our girls have worked their tails off for years,” said Gilmore, who was thrilled for Zapien and fellow seniors Gray and post Emily Stuth.