Stanwood AAU basketball team playing in Alaska

STANWOOD — The Stanwood eighth grade AAU boys basketball team has experienced its share of success and garnered many admirers.

Little did the coaches and players know those admirers would extend all the way to the Arctic Circle.

The Stanwood eighth graders are spending the weekend plying their trade in as northern climes possible as they participate in the second annual Utqiagvik Basketball Tournament in Barrow, Alaska.

“I can’t wait, it’s going to be fun, and I get to miss two days of school!” team member Trey Austin exclaimed in true eighth-grader fashion prior to the team’s departure Thursday.

It’s not just that Stanwood traveled to the northernmost city in the United States — Barrow is an oil town located at the furtherst-north tip of Alaska — to play basketball, the host Barrow team is paying all of Stanwood’s expenses so the team can take part.

“We’re so excited about this opportunity,” Stanwood coach Dave Austin said. “The team’s been together so long we were looking for some kind of culminating activity to end our time together, because they’re done with us now and moving on to high school. We talked about Vegas and Portland and Reno and different tournaments, and all of a sudden this came up. It’s so much bigger than just making the trip, because when they’re adults they’ll have a chance to go to those other places, but when in the world would you have the chance to go to Barrow, Alaska? It’s so great for the kids.”

It was chance encounter that led to Stanwood’s Alaskan opportunity.

Stanwood is a nine-player team that draws all its players from Stanwood Middle School and Port Susan Middle School. It’s not the biggest or most-talented team, but most of the players have been together since third grade, and they’ve built a team game that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a result, Stanwood has won games and tournaments against all-star and select teams that no one would have predicted when watching the teams warm up.

“We’ve been playing with each other since we were third graders and we know each other so well,” team member Trygve DeBoer explained about the team’s success.

“They epitomize what it is to be a team, they truly do,” Dave Austin added. “I’ve coached for more than 20 years and never had a group of kids that play so well as a team together. They don’t rush to the scorebook after the game to see how many points they scored, they truly are selfless.”

In March, Stanwood was playing in the Tulip Tournament in Mount Vernon, where it just happened to face the team from Barrow. The game was a high-level, back-and-forth affair that Barrow eventually won in overtime.

“It was one of the best games I’ve ever seen,” Dave Austin said. “It was so competitive, back-and-forth and end-to-end. It was over, and there was a feeling that there needed to be more to it.”

Barrow coach Roland Hepa agreed. He later e-mailed Dave Austin, saying how much he enjoyed the game and complimenting Stanwood on its team play.

“They’re way bigger than us, but he was so impressed by the way the kids moved the ball and played team defense,” Dave Austin said. “His son is 6-foot-6 and is a point guard, and we still managed to slow him down. He saw that and he complimented the kids for playing great team basketball. He said it was one of the best teams he ever played against and he would love to have a chance to play us again.”

So much so that Hepa was going to ensure Stanwood’s participation in the Utqiagvik Basketball Tournament. The host team is footing the bill for Stanwood’s flight to Barrow, and is also providing room and board.

“At first I didn’t really think it was going to come true,” Dave Austin said. “When we got the bill it was $12,000 just to fly up there and (I) just about fell over. We couldn’t afford to do that. So it was very generous of them.”

Therefore, for the first time in its history, the Stanwood AAU team is playing in a tournament outside the state of Washington. It just happens to be 2,000 miles away and in a place so far north that in the middle of May, the forecast calls for snow and the sun never sets.

The team consists of players Trey Austin, Trygve DeBoer, Karl DeBoer, Carson Bickford, Nate Kummer, Garrett Larson, Tyler Younce, Jack Softcheck and Carson Midthun, as well as coaches Dave Austin and J.P. DeBoer. It is scheduled to get in plenty of games over the weekend in a tournament that features some of the best eighth-grade teams from throughout Alaska. Stanwood also was scheduled to play the Barrow High School squad.

But it’s also more than just a basketball trip. It’s also a cultural experience as Barrow’s largely Native American community was set to expose Stanwood to some local customs, including a whaling trip.

“I think it’s a great experience, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” Trygve DeBoer said. “It’s going to be a fun tournament up there.”

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