ARLINGTON — United by a common goal and energized by the camaraderie and blaring music, the Lakewood boys basketball team spent much of this past offseason grinding through high-intensity workouts in “the Den,” a makeshift training facility in the garage of their coach’s house a few miles from campus.
For the Cougars, those grueling training sessions were formative to their sudden rise.
After going winless in Cascade Conference play two seasons ago and finishing 6-15 last year during their inaugural run in the Northwest Conference, Lakewood is enjoying its best season in more than a decade.
“It helped (with) more than just physical strength,” Cougars junior Alex Coleman said of the offseason workouts. “We (bonded) a lot as a team and we have a lot more trust in each other, which is making us play a lot faster and more as a team.
“And that’s what we needed. That’s what we were missing. We had all the pieces last year, but we didn’t really put it together.”
Lakewood finished the regular season earlier this week at 16-5 overall and 10-3 in Northwest Conference play, tying for third place in the powerful 14-team league in just their second season as a member. It’s just the second winning season for the Cougars since 2005-06.
“The growth in (the senior) class has just been amazing,” fourth-year Lakewood coach Anthony Wiederkehr said. “I’ve never seen a class of high school students improve that much year to year. And a lot of it is just what they’ve done in the offseason. They’ve all improved a lot.”
Lakewood has won 11 of its past 13 games, including landmark victories over longtime Northwest Conference powers Lynden and Lynden Christian. The Cougars knocked off Lynden on Jan. 26, then handed previously unbeaten Lynden Christian its first loss of the season last Friday.
“They now feel like they can beat anybody,” Wiederkehr said. “I told the kids, ‘This is not a fluke. We’re not just playing well. This is how we play now.’
“The Lynden and Lynden Christian games were upsets on paper. (But) I think now with this group, that’s just the level they’re playing at. … This is the level we can compete at and win at now.”
Lakewood earned the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the talent-laden Class 2A District 1/2 tournament. The Cougars open the eight-team, double-elimination portion of the tournament Saturday against the winner of the play-in game between fifth-seeded Lynden and 12th-seeded Bellingham.
Lakewood needs two victories to earn a top-four finish in the bi-district tournament, which would give the program its first state berth in the school’s 35-year history.
“I thought it would maybe take the program another year or two to get here,” Wiederkehr said. “There’s still some work to be done. But if you were to ask me two years ago if I thought we were going to beat Lynden and Lynden Christian in the same week, I would’ve said no — especially after that 0-14 year in the Cascade Conference.
“That’s just hats off to the players for all the commitment they’ve had. … It’s one thing to want to be good. But to put in the work necessary to be good is something totally different, and they’ve just done such a good job of that.”
Wiederkehr, a 2006 Lakewood alum who went on to play basketball at Western Washington University, spearheaded the offseason training program.
He was motivated in part by his playing days at Lakewood, particularly his junior season when the Cougars fell one win short of reaching state.
“There were just a lot of things, looking back, that I would’ve changed about my career there,” Wiederkehr said. “And one was working harder in the offseason. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do with these guys is have a more robust offseason program, because I feel that we didn’t improve very much from year to year when I was in high school.
“There was an extra motivation with kind of getting a second chance to make Lakewood into a team that’s competing to go to state each year — to take my experience and how close we were, and try to implement the things that I think could have changed that and gotten us over the hump to state.”
Wiederkehr transformed his garage into a makeshift weight room and training area, and began holding hour-long workouts four times per week during the spring and summer. The players bought in, motivated in part by last year’s season-ending district play-in loss to Cedarcrest.
“We got beat by a team that we thought we should’ve beaten,” senior Kaleb Duitsman said. “We decided we (didn’t) want to get beat like that again.”
“Last year, they got a little bit of taste for the playoffs,” Wiederkehr added. “I think that made them hungry, (and) I think they realized that they weren’t very far away from being a good basketball program.”
The challenging nature of their training sessions helped the Cougars match the physicality of the Northwest Conference.
“Teams can’t push us around anymore,” Duitsman said.
Yet that was far from the only benefit those workouts served.
“They were really hard,” Coleman said. “But as they went on, it got easier, because we’d push each other and we’d find a way to get through it. And I feel like that’s how we’re winning these tough games, because we think about all the times that we he had to get through one more set.”
Wiederkehr and several players said the tight-knit bonds forged in the Den have translated to success on the court, where the Cougars sport a balanced attack featuring seven players who average at least six points per game.
“Everybody’s sharing the ball extremely well,” Wiederkehr said. “They’re always making the extra pass, and I think it just goes back to all the bonding and chemistry they made in the offseason.
“A team that truly plays selfless and has no individual motivations outside of the team is a very hard team to scout for and play against. They just do a great job of playing with each other.”
That was particularly evident during a sequence of passes that led to senior CJ McClellan’s pivotal, go-ahead 3-pointer in the fourth quarter of Lakewood’s win over Lynden Christian. Duitsman — who holds several program 3-point records — passed up a shot and swung the ball to Coleman, who then whipped it to McClellan for an open 3-pointer.
“Throughout the offseason and the full season, we’ve gained more trust in each other,” Duitsman said. “So when we don’t have the perfect shot, we trust our teammates to move it and make the right decision.”
Coleman leads the Cougars with 11.9 points per game, followed by Duitsman with 10.9.
Jensen, a sophomore point guard who led the team in scoring last season as a freshman, averages 9.3 points per game and has a 4.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s so skilled with the ball and he’s so smart,” Wiederkehr said. “He’s just so far beyond his age mentally. We don’t make a lot of mistakes, and I think he’s a huge reason why. Just to have that anchor and that reliable guy at point has been a huge thing.”
Senior Adam Duran adds 6.9 points per game and junior Michai Harris averages 6.6. Harris, who moved back to Lakewood School District this past offseason after living for a little over a year in Virginia, scored a team-high 27 points in the victory over Lynden Christian.
McClellan averages 6.2 points per game and sparks the defense with 2.4 steals per contest. Senior football stars Jonathan Cox III (6.0 points per game) and Austin Lane (5.1 points) provide physicality inside and lead the team in rebounds.
“Anyone on our team can hurt you on any night,” Wiederkehr said. “We really have the most balanced scoring I’ve ever seen. That’s so hard for other teams to scout for.”
To reach the state regionals, Lakewood must navigate a challenging bi-district tournament field that includes Mountlake Terrace (19-1), Liberty (16-4), Anacortes (19-1) and Lynden (15-5).
Wiederkehr said earning the program’s first-ever trip to state would be monumental.
“This is the type of team that, as a coach, you really want to get there,” he said, “just so they can enjoy the successes of all the work they’ve put in.”