GRANITE FALLS — After winning only one game the past two seasons, the Granite Falls boys basketball team didn’t generate a lot of excitement before the start of its 2011-12 campaign.
But the Tigers are generating excitement now.
The team has undergone quite a transformation, improving to 9-5 in league and 12-8 overall this season. That earned Granite Falls the Cascade Conference’s No. 2 seed for the 2A District 1 boys tournament, which starts Saturday.
The turnaround started with first-year Tigers coach Jim Wilson, whose preseason goal was to change the culture surrounding Granite Falls boys basketball.
“I just got a feeling that the kids weren’t real excited about basketball,” Wilson said. “I think they wanted to be excited about basketball. They just didn’t really have any reason to be.”
Wilson made sure that changed before the season started. He got them involved in summer leagues and camps. He got them in the weight room. The players even got new gear and travel bags.
For the first time in two seasons, the players had reason to be excited and that excitement didn’t take long to translate to victories.
The Tigers lost their first two games, but then defeated Nooksack Valley in their third game. It was quite the lift for a team that had tasted victory only once in 40 previous games.
“They really wanted to win,” Wilson said. “I don’t think they knew how to win.”
But under Wilson, they were learning. Trey Hitchcock, one of the team’s captains, credited Wilson for getting the team motivated not only to play, but to win.
“Our head coach, Coach Wilson, really came in and helped turn things around,” Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock recalled a game that the Tigers played earlier this season — a loss to Lakewood — where he really learned what Wilson was all about. Granite Falls trailed by nearly 20 points at one point in the game, but the Tigers, under coach Wilson’s patient guidance, battled back to close the margin to just three points by the time the final buzzer sounded.
“He coached us the same throughout,” Hitchcock said. “He never gives up. He doesn’t quit.”
The Tigers are led offensively by senior Shawn Madigan, but Wilson credits Hitchcock with being another key to the Tigers’ success.
“When he plays well, our team seems to play better,” Wilson said.
Behind their new coach, the players bought into the new direction of Granite Falls basketball. They bought into the offensive and defensive systems. They bought into the culture that Wilson was trying to create.
“When I got there, I don’t think there was a lot of hope,” Wilson said. “You aren’t going to change it overnight. It wasn’t a deal where we were going to go 1-39 and then turn it around and go 20-0.”
And the Tigers have experienced their share of ups-and-downs this season. The team’s longest winning streak is three games, but they haven’t lost more than two in a row.
The season high point came on Jan. 31 when the Tigers upset Cascade Conference regular-season champion King’s 64-60.
“I would say during the season, that was our biggest win,” Wilson said.
Now that the Tigers have made the postseason, they are looking for more wins like that one. It won’t be easy, the Tigers first round opponent in districts is perennial state-power Squalicum, who won back-to-back state championships in 2009 and 2010 and placed second in 2011.
But Squalicum’s credentials don’t seem to faze the Tigers.
“They haven’t really said a whole lot about it,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t matter who we are playing or where we are playing. Let’s just play as hard as we can.”
It’s a philosophy that seems to have worked for the Tigers this season. It took Wilson getting his team excited about playing basketball, but now he gets to share in the excitement.
“I’m really excited for the kids,” he said. “I know the last few years they have been through a lot. To see how far they have come has been really fun.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com