Jason Todd hasn’t forgotten about last year’s 4A state championship game.
He’s reminded of it every time he looks at his computer.
On the screen is a scene from last year’s title game, where Jackson fell to Curtis 60-56 at the Tacoma Dome. Todd uses it as motivation to picture a different finish to his senior season.
“I relive that moment every day,” Todd said. “My screensaver is a picture of us losing. It’s constant motivation. It’s the reason why we come here and work our butts off every day in practice. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure what happened last year doesn’t happen this year.”
After falling behind early, the Timberwolves rallied back thanks in large part to Todd, who was later named the Gatorade Player of the Year and The Herald’s Player of the Year. As a junior, Todd averaged 21.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Todd is back for his senior year, as is most of Jackson’s team from last season – the Timberwolves lost only two players from their 2012-13 squad. Unfortunately for Jackson’s opponents, Todd said he’s an even stronger player than last season, when he collected several awards and accolades including first-team All-Wesco 4A South honors.
“A lot better. I’m not going to tell you how, but I got a lot of areas to improve upon,” Todd said. “I’ve been working in the offseason. I was fortunate last year, but I had a lot of things to get better at, that I still need to get better at.”
Jackson head coach Steve Johnson says Todd, who committed to play at the University of Portland on Sept. 11, is a great player to have on a team, and not just for his basketball prowess. The senior sets a good example for the younger Timberwolves and is a very coachable player.
“It’s obviously a great luxury to have a player like Jason,” Johnson said. “More than that, he’s a great kid and a great representative of our program and our community. To have a player of that stature coming back is definitely a huge bonus to say the least.”
“Jason’s an awesome teammate,” said senior point guard Dan Kingma. “He does everything that he can do to help the team win. Playing with Jason my whole life has been kind of crazy because just playing with someone that good just makes it so easy on everyone else. Being a point guard your job is to get other people involved and when those other people are as good as some of my teammates – like Jason, Brian (Zehr), some other guys – it makes it a lot easier.”
Todd was a leader on last year’s team that featured two seniors – Kyle Graff and Derrick Bates. This year’s team features 10, including Todd, Kingma, Zehr and Connor Willgress, among others.
The large returning cast has many picking Jackson as a favorite to get back to the state tournament.
“We’ve certainly heard from lots of people how great we’re supposed to be, but we’re trying to stay grounded and realize that sports can be pretty humbling,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to stay true to the whole process and stay true to working hard every day. We’re excited and certainly feel that with this experienced senior group that’s had success we’re excited for our chances, but we realize we have to work hard all season.”
Like Todd, Kingma – the starting point guard at Jackson for the last three years – also evokes high praise from his coach. As does Zehr, another strong player who sometimes gets lost in all the other talent Jackson has.
“The point guard is arguably the most important position on the floor,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, (Kingma’s) one of the best point guards around. … Brian, I think, is a much better player than everyone realizes. I think he’s a very underappreciated player. He’s better than a lot of people think.”
Along with all the veterans, Johnson said he expects some underclassmen to step up too. He’s not sure just how much they’ll contribute on the varsity squad, but he says he expects them to play “big minutes.”
Johnson and the Timberwolves hope it all adds up to another trip to the Tacoma Dome.
“There’s so many things that go into getting to state,” Johnson said. “Some are out of your control – like health. We think we have the potential to have a great season. We’ve been there before. We’ve almost got to the top of the mountain and we’d like to get to the top of the mountain.”
The team believes last year’s deep playoff run provided great experience for what was then a younger team. Now that the Timberwolves are a little bit older, they’re hoping they can duplicate last season’s success.
“That was valuable experience to go that far last year,” Kingma said. “You can’t go any further than that, so we all know what it’s like. What it takes to get there. I think it’s motivation because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. Coming into this year, we have something that we know we want to do.”
Jackson has a challenging schedule that gets off to a late start. The Timberwolves don’t play their first game, a showdown with Wesco 4A South rival Edmonds-Woodway, until Dec. 13th. The long break before the season opener has the Timberwolves anxious to play against some new faces.
“It’s tough to wait that long,” Kingma said. “Obviously, it’s more fun to play the game rather than practicing against the same guys every day. But I think it’s good for us to just play against each other and be as good as we can get. We have a lot of time to prepare for that first game.”
Last season Edmonds-Woodway gave Jackson a pair of their toughest games, with the Timberwolves winning the two contests by a combined seven points. The Warriors held leads late in both of those contests and are also eager to get back on the court with Jackson.
“Obviously, they’re solid – of course – with Todd inside. He’s tough to guard,” said Edmonds-Woodway head coach Steve Call. “It’s fun playing Jackson. I really enjoy those games. They have great kids and great coaches.”
The Timberwolves have another strong challenge a couple weeks later when they fly to Palm Springs, Calif. for the MaxPreps Holiday Classic, which features some of the best teams on the west coast.
Jackson will play four games against tough competition – that also includes Bellevue and Issaquah from Washington State.
“There’s going to be some teams that we’re not used to playing against around here,” Kingma said. “I’m excited to see how we match up against some of the teams on the west coast.”
There’s one more advantage to being in Southern California from Dec. 26th to the 30th.
“It’ll be nice to have it be 80 to 90 degrees in December too,” Kingma said.