Everett’s Ella Sylvester (left) elevates for a shot during a 3A District 1 playoff game against Arlington on Feb. 15 at Marysville Pilchuck High School. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett’s Ella Sylvester (left) elevates for a shot during a 3A District 1 playoff game against Arlington on Feb. 15 at Marysville Pilchuck High School. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

After early losses, Everett never stopped believing in run to state

The Seagulls dropped 5 straight early in the season, but have won 10 of 12 since heading into a regional game vs. Hermiston.

Coach Darrell McNeal said the Everett girls basketball team’s season could have gone one of two ways in mid-January.

The Seagulls were 2-5 and had just lost five straight, including four losses to eventual Class 4A and 3A state qualifiers. They were also still trying to find their way under their first-year head coach.

The team could’ve folded after the tough start, or they could find a way to turn things around.

The Seagulls simply never stopped believing and chose to do the latter.

Everett has won 10 of 12 since. As a result, the Seagulls (12-7) are in the state regionals for the first time since 2013.

No. 11 Everett takes on No. 14 Hermiston at 2 p.m. Saturday at Everett Community College. The winner advances to the first round of the next week’s 3A Hardwood Classic at the Tacoma Dome, a venue the Seagulls haven’t played at in 26 years.

“To be able to come together as a senior with these girls has been super special, especially with three underclassmen as starters,” four-year starter Ella Sylvester said. “We mesh super well and it’s been awesome.”

The Seagulls had to learn quick this season and so did their coach. McNeal, who previously coached the Cascade and Lynnwood boys programs, was hired in late September, leaving him little time to get familiar with the returning roster with Nov. 15 tryouts less than two months away.

“I didn’t have an idea of who was coming out until the first day of tryouts,” he said. “(That’s) when I actually saw everybody that was going to actually be there and be a part of all of this. I knew of girls, but I didn’t know how many of the returners were going to come back out and how they were going to respond with the COVID protocols.”

With little time to prepare and the added obstacles created by COVID, Everett struggled to fully grasp McNeal’s offensive systems during the season’s first month. It didn’t help that four of their opponents during that stretch — 4A No. 1 Woodinville, 4A No. 4 Lake Stevens, 3A No. 7 Stanwood and 3A No. 9 Lakeside-Seattle — were among the best in the state either.

But something clicked after that tough stretch. The defense specifically.

The Seagulls have held nine of their past 12 opponents to 41 points or less, allowing an average of just 34.5 points per game in those nine contests. They finished the season giving up the fewest points per game (37.4) in Wesco 3A/2A play — a huge jump from being ninth in that category during the last full-length season.

“I think for these girls they really have a lot of pride playing defense,” McNeal said. “That’s something we kind of ingrained in them from Day 1 is that we’re going to build this program on our defense and go from there.”

Everett has thrived defensively thanks in large part to the number of long, athletic players at its disposal. Ten of the Seagulls’ 12 varsity players range from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-1, and on top of that many of those players have the ability to guard multiple positions on the court.

Two of the biggest catalysts in Everett’s defensive prowess have been twin sisters Mae and Alana Washington. The sophomore duo heads up the Seagulls’ full-court press, which has wreaked havoc on opponents and sparked the offense by creating transition buckets.

“Our defense definitely fuels our whole game,” Sylvester said. “… It gives us that momentum to last all four quarters.”

McNeal and teammates also highlighted the integral role Sylvester has played in leading the team. When the losses were coming early on, Sylvester was a steady and encouraging presence.

“It’s a lot of her experience, her toughness and her competitive nature,” McNeal said. “She works hard in practice and she’s a great leader, and then we get her on the court and she flips another switch. She was willing to burden the load (early on) … as the other girls were still developing.”

And despite having little time to familiarize themselves with a new coach, Everett’s players said building a rapport with McNeal came easy.

“We are so happy that he was able to come and take this opportunity to coach us,” Sylvester said. “… As soon as the season started, he was into it and going full throttle. He made us know that he was committed by his words and then by his actions, so it was pretty easy to trust him.”

Saturday’s matchup with Hermiston will be a classic battle of strength versus strength. The Bulldogs average 61.4 points per game, have reached 70 points seven times this season and haven’t had a team hold them below 40 — which Everett has done to 11 teams this season.

With a chance to play in the Tacoma Dome on the line, the Seagulls hope their smothering defense can help them earn a spot at the Hardwood Classic for the first time this century.

“That would be so amazing,” Alana Washington said. “As long as I step foot in there, I’ll feel like we accomplished a goal that Everett hasn’t in a long time. Any wins from there would just be great, just a cherry on top.”

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