The boys played on a select AAU basketball team, and whenever they closed a huddle during a timeout or at practice they would put their hands together and shout, "SC."
"We told everyone that it meant 'Stanwood Camano,' said Brady Garcea, now a senior at Stanwood High School and a member of the Spartans basketball team. "But to us it meant 'state champions.'"
Having kept their secret all these years, they will try to make the dream come true this weekend beginning with today's 12:15 p.m. Class 3A state tournament opener vs. Bellevue at the Tacoma Dome. If the Spartans win the first game and two more on Friday and Saturday, they will indeed be the state champions.
"It's what we've dreamed of the whole time we've played together," Garcea said.
On a team that represents the close-knit community of Stanwood, the Spartans are led by a close-knit trio of similarly sized senior guards. Ian Zipp, who is 5 feet, 10 inches tall, Josh Thayer, who is also 5-10, and the 5-91/2 Garcea started playing basketball together as grade-schoolers — Garcea and Thayer were in fourth grade, with Zipp joining them a year later — and their ensuing years together have brought them to the doorstep of their longtime dream.
"This is the Big Bang," said Zipp, the most distinctive of the bunch with his bushy hair and beard. "I've been losing so much sleep thinking, 'This is it, this is what we've all wanted it to come down to, the state championship.' It'll be the biggest stage of our basketball careers, and it's basically our dream as players to fulfill this."
"This is a huge deal for us," agreed Thayer. "I try to do homework at home and I'll be sitting there for three minutes doing some work and then I start thinking, 'Wow, we're going to play in the Tacoma Dome.' It's definitely a big deal for us to go down there and play. It's crazy awesome."
But if the thrill is great, so is the challenge. The Spartans are 23-1 and ranked second in the state, but the Bellevue team they play today is 22-3 and ranked third. And if Stanwood wins its opener, the next opponent in Friday's semifinal would likely be top-ranked Rainier Beach at 26-0.
"We're going to have to play really good to get to where we want to be," Thayer said. "But I think we can do it. And I know that if we play well we can (beat) every team in the tournament."
"We've been playing in huge games our entire life," Zipp added. "We've felt the pressure. And we've always been the underdogs. People have looked at us and laughed … like we're a bunch of country hicks. They see us and expect us to have straws in our mouths, like we just got done tending the chickens. But then we go out and show them that we can really (play) ball."
Stanwood coach Zach Ward has varied his lineup during the year, sometimes starting two of the three and playing the third from the bench, and sometimes starting all three. The experience and leadership of all three, he explained, has been a big factor in the team's success this season.
"Those three guys, they drive the bus," Ward said. "There's not been one practice and there's not been one game where I've had to get on any of those kids and say, 'Hey, it's time to turn it up, it's time to play better.' And to have three guys that kind of shoulder that weight equally really helps."
This is Stanwood's first state tournament appearance since 2010, when a team coached by Ward and led by Zack Johnson, Kale Schmidt and Drew Haugstad played at the Tacoma Dome, going 1-2 in three games. Garcea, Zipp and Thayer were all eighth graders that year, and they remember the excitement of the tournament as well as the disappointment of the two defeats.
This year, they hope, there will be a different ending.
Winning a state championship "would be, and I'm not exaggerating, the biggest event in my life," Zipp said. "We've played so much basketball, and to be able to say we're the best in the state … would be unreal. I don't know that feeling yet, so I don't even know what I would do."
"When we won the regional game (vs. Foss last weekend) I was pretty happy afterward," Thayer said. "And now I'm just trying to imagine that compared to a state championship. It'd be unreal."
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