One year ago this coming Saturday the Sehome boys’ basketball team was left reeling outside Chehalis’ W.F. West High School.
The Mariners, powered by lone senior Evan Miksovsky, had just seen their Hardwood Classic bid vanish at the hands of Mark Morris following a state tournament regional round loss.
“I would say that day, when we lost, all of our thoughts were for Evan,” Sehome coach AJ LaBree said in a phone interview. “That was his last game at Sehome, and then you take a day and they were ready to come back out, asking me what time open gyms were and what our summer schedule was.”
This year’s Mariners knew they had a chance to accomplish something special and were eager to get a jump start. A roster featuring nine seniors is a rare occurrence, and the majority of Sehome’s nine had been waiting for their senior years since they were playing together in kindergarten.
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The Mariners (17-8), District 1’s No. 4 seed, face the Washington Patriots (18-6) of Tacoma at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, at Renton High School for the right to advance to next week’s Hardwood Classic at Yakima’s SunDome.
Sehome plays strong defense, has great depth, features several scorers but what makes the team special is their togetherness and sense of family.
Tanner Clark, Leif Anderson, Duncan James, Langston Engle and Josh Slesk began playing ball together in kindergarten through the Boys and Girls Club. They were coached by Slesk’s dad. The group began playing AAU in fifth grade, and slowly more of this year’s seniors joined the team.
“We are all really close together,” James said in a phone interview. “Whenever we go on trips, you stay in a hotel. We all hang out in the same room and make jokes even the coaches are in on. It’s just a fun environment.”
The team’s chemistry has been visible throughout the regular season, but it was Sehome’s summer traveling schedule that fostered much of today’s existing camaraderie.
Parents and players came to LaBree, he said, during the offseason and wanted to assemble a challenging summer tournament schedule, so the Mariners competed in some of the state’s premier tournaments. And during Sehome’s senior night against Anacortes on Feb. 5, many of the players’ favorite memories stemmed from those basketball trips.
“A lot of people don’t understand how much bonding goes on in the summertime,” said LaBree, who compared the 2014-15 Mariners to family more than a basketball team. “You’re on the road together for five hours in a hot, sweaty van with all these guys. You have video game tournaments and stuff like that.”
With so much experience combined with talented sophomores Marcus Montag and Logan Deboo, as well as junior Leighton Kingma, playing time is hard to come by for some, but all nine seniors have found ways to make an impact.
Anderson and Clark, two of Sehome’s top three leading scorers, rarely come off the court. Engle supplies strong defense and can score when called upon, especially from beyond the arc, and Elijah Andrushenko and Sam Carroll provide tremendous energy coming off the bench. James, a captain with Anderson and Clark, is another big who gives nice minutes and strong leadership.
Reserves Steven Thibou, Teddy Pechthalt, and Slesk don’t see much court time, but the trio, LaBree said, has been extremely beneficial at practice by helping the team prepare for their next opponent.
Unselfish attitudes are central to the Mariners’ ability to thrive in spite of having to share so much playing time. It’s spawned from both the tight bond they’ve formed and their commitment to winning.
Even before the season started LaBree shared a perfect example of the Mariners’ selfless attitudes.
“Josh Slesk, before the season he showed up for tryouts,” LaBree explained. “I was a little surprised to see him. He had played, but didn’t play his sophomore or junior year. He came up to me and said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if I play. I just want to help make the team better and be a part of a winning program.’ As a coach, you want that guy right there. ‘Hey, I don’t care if I play, I want to make the team better.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
James said Sehome’s family atmosphere makes a difference on the court.
“Just like the trust,” he said. “I trust all the guys that they are going to do their jobs, and that really helps being a family together. We all trust each other and know we are going to do our best.”
Even when the Mariners aren’t at practice they find ways to interact. Besides different players’ families hosting team dinners, James said the team communicates through a group message and comes together Tuesday and Friday nights to play the popular phone app Clash of Clans. And yes, LaBree is clan leader, and James said he’s the team’s best player.
Sehome’s seniors have developed a close relationship with LaBree, too, with most of them playing for him for three years. The Mariners coach joked he’s been forced to find fresh halftime-speech material, because his players have heard it all before.
“He does a lot of unique things,” James said of LaBree. “We all play Clash of Clans, and we all crack jokes about that, and it works to inspire us all. Whatever he says, he has his gameplan and he knows what he is doing.”
The Mariners are hoping they can prolong their season and make more memories with a trip to the SunDome, but first they’ll have to beat a Washington High team whose last trip to the state tournament was in 2000.
“It’s hard to say. I think they are a good team,” said LaBree of Sehome’s next opponent. “They are definitely talented and athletic and fast. The competition we played this summer has prepared us for anything, so we are going down there with the mindset of coming home with a win, but not overconfident and cocky.”