Ladyhawks are champs
If everyone at Chief Sealth High School is still getting used to hearing that, it's understandable.
The class 3A state girl's basketball title that the Seahawks brought home Saturday night is not only the school's first hoop crown, but its first state championship, period.
"It feels good n very good," coach Ray Willis said.
The team n which consists mostly of sophomores n took the title decisively, beating all of their opponents at the state meet by large margins. In the first round they pounded Centralia, 75-51. The margin was even greater the next day against White River, 58-27. In the semi-finals, Sealth beat Clover Park by 10 points. Their final statement was in the championship game, when they held off previously unbeaten River Ridge of Lacey to win, 71-54.
"We had no doubt about how we would do this year," sophomore center Regina Rogers said. "We were confident going into the season."
That confidence especially showed in the final game, when Sealth laid down the hammer in the first quarter. Senior Ophelia Whitfield ignited a run by putting up a basket, which sophomore Nia Jackson followed up with a steal and a lay-in. Sophomore Christina Nzekwe stole the ball again and fed it to Jackson for another bucket n six points in 18 seconds. The Seahawks were up 18-3 at the 3:53 mark, and ended the quarter leading 22-7.
Things never got any better than that for River Ridge, who at one point in the third quarter cut the lead to 10. Sealth quickly stormed back on a bucket by Rogers and then Jackson, to bolster their lead back up. River Ridge had no match for Rogers and Nzekwe, both 6'4", in the paint. Nor could they answer Jackson, who exploded for a team-high 23 points, five steals and three assists.
There is no doubt that Sealth has offense. Time after time, Rogers just took the ball straight up, through her defender's arms and scored. A few times she missed and got her own rebound to put it up and in. On another play, Jackson dished a perfect back-door assist to junior Valerie Cook, who was wide open. But Willis says it was defense that made the difference for his team.
"When we got up by so much in the first quarter n that was defense," he said. "I emphasize defense in practice, because defense wins championships."
Another thing that worked in Sealth's favor, according to Willis, was that they competed in the state tournament last year, where they placed third.
"They had the experience of being here before, and they learned," he said.
At the time, it was a bittersweet lesson. Many at Sealth felt the team was a victim of a tough draw in the brackets. They faced favorite and eventual champion Meadowdale in the semifinals, and lost. This year, Meadowdale moved to class 4A, leaving the 3A race open. But Saturday night, Willis said his team was "the Meadowdale of this year," and had been expected to win.
Sealth hasn't had much of a girl's basketball program since Sheila Lambert graduated in 1998. Willis coached previously at Eastside Catholic High School, where he took his team to the finals in 2002. He was hired at Sealth that fall. His first season, the team didn't qualify for the SeaKing tournament. Then along came freshmen Rogers, Nzekwe and Jackson the next year, and the team went to state.
This year, senior Ophelia Whitfield transferred to Sealth from Cleveland High School, where she had been a star forward for last year's Metro League champions. Her addition to the team proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.
Whitfield already knew Rogers and Cook from playing AAU basketball with them. Nzekwe and Rogers have also been friends for a long time, and have played off-season ball with each other, as well as several other of their Seahawk teammates, for years. This has helped them develop as a team.
"Our friendship makes us such a solid team," Rogers said. "We like each other, and we play ball together year-round."
This shows up on the court, where the Seahawks are known for yelling instructions at each other during offensive plays. It's obvious off-court, too, such as after Saturday's game.
When they emerged from the locker room, the boy's championship game was already in progress. The team walked up into bleachers on the side and watched the game together, sitting around their huge trophy.
"The girls really like each other," Willis said.
Former Seahawks are also still part of the family. MeMe Lewis-Roberts, who followed Willis from Eastside Catholic, was a senior last year. But that didn't stop her from coming to many of her former team's games this year, including the championship game. At halftime, she stood to the side to slap hands with the girls as they ran into the locker room.
"This is so exciting!" she said.
Chief Sealth fans brought plenty of team spirit too. Many showed up in T-shirts that read, "got state?" Former Athletic Director Michael Moore, who hired Willis, was also in attendance.
Some of the players plan to participate in track and field this spring, but are taking two weeks off first.
"We're tired," Willis said.
Sue Favor is a Seattle free-lance writer and can be reached at email@example.com