It might sound strange for a group coming off the best state finish in program history, but the Marysville Pilchuck High School boys basketball team enters this season with a collective chip on its shoulder.
Last year’s historic run to a fourth-place state trophy was highlighted by the ultra-talented RaeQuan Battle, whose 3-point shooting barrages and high-flying dunks garnered much of the attention.
But with Battle having graduated and now part of the University of Washington men’s basketball team, the senior-laden Tomahawks are eager to prove last season’s storybook campaign wasn’t just a one-man show.
“Losing RaeQuan is a huge piece of who we were, obviously, last year,” Marysville Pilchuck coach Bary Gould said. “But I feel like my guys have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders. … I think everybody wants to still kind of talk about us being without RaeQuan, instead of about what we have.”
And the Tomahawks sure have plenty of pieces coming back.
Marysville Pilchuck returned all but two players from last year’s team, which won 21 of its final 22 games in a season filled with accomplishments. The Tomahawks went unbeaten in Wesco 3A/2A play, claimed their second consecutive district title and advanced to the Class 3A Hardwood Classic. Then after falling to eventual state champion O’Dea in the state quarterfinals, Marysville Pilchuck rebounded with a pair of victories to earn a program-best fourth-place state finish.
Battle was undoubtedly an enormous part of it all, averaging 22 points and nine rebounds per game while regularly displaying sensational feats of athleticism. But with a number of other Tomahawks playing key roles and stepping up at crucial times throughout the season, the team’s success went far beyond just Battle.
“Last year, we were thought of as RaeQuan’s supporting cast, because obviously he was a phenomenal player,” Marysville Pilchuck senior Aaron Kalab said. “He was one of the best players this area has seen. (But) I feel like as a collective, we also had some pretty good games. … This year, we want to prove that we didn’t (just) rely on him last year and how we’re still great basketball players.”
Among the leaders for Marysville Pilchuck is experienced senior guard Luke Dobler, a skilled ball-handler and talented shooter who’s committed to continue his basketball career at Whitworth University in Spokane. Dobler averaged 11 points and four assists per game last season, including a career-high 33 points in a state regional win over Kelso.
“Luke is just our steadying force,” Gould said. “(He’s) just so, so solid with the basketball. … He’s our floor general and just does such a great job with that — not to mention that he shoots the lights out.”
Another proven scorer is 6-foot-4 senior Cameron Stordahl, who averaged 11 points per game last season after transferring from crosstown rival Marysville Getchell. Stordahl hit five 3-pointers and poured in 28 points this past Wednesday, leading the Tomahawks to a season-opening win over defending Wesco 4A champion Jackson.
“He has incredible body control,” Gould said. “He can shoot the 3, but he’s really crafty around the rim with Euro steps and finishes with his right and left hand. … And then defensively, he just gets down and works hard at it. He’s a good rebounder for us and also has become a really good passer.
“And so he’s really kind of turned himself into a complete player. … He had a good year last year, but I think he’s stepped up his game.”
Kalab, a slashing forward who excels at getting to the rim, scored double-digit points in each of Marysville Pilchuck’s first two games this past week. Last season, he had a 29-point outburst against rival Marysville Getchell.
“Every time I think of Aaron, I just think of warrior,” Gould said. “He sacrifices his body (and) goes all out all the time. There’s never a time when he’s on the floor and he’s not giving everything that he has.”
Senior guard Brady Phelps and 6-foot-6 senior post Ethan Jackson also played key roles on last year’s team. Gould said both players are among the returners who made definite strides during the offseason.
“I think this offseason, we all knew that we all had to step up a little bit more,” Kalab said. “I feel like we all played our role pretty well last year, … and this year we’re just taking the next step. Whatever you did last year, you have to be even better this year.”
Gould said they’ve taken a committee approach to filling the massive void left by Battle, who likely was one of the greatest prep basketball players in Snohomish County history.
“To fill the shoes of RaeQuan, we don’t have a single player that can do that,” Gould said. “I mean, I probably won’t ever again have a single player that can play like that. … And so it’s kind of just been (by) committee.
“This guy get two or four of Rae’s points, and this guy get three or four of Rae’s points. And then Luke and Cameron are obviously kids that can step up and have big nights on any given night.”
Gould said his team has put more energy into defense this season, partly because they no longer have the luxury of Battle erasing mistakes with his shot-blocking ability.
“Our team defense is probably actually a little bit better, just because we have to be — we can’t depend on RaeQuan being back there to kind of save us when we have mental lapses defensively,” Gould said. “We don’t have that luxury, and so the discipline (and) the energy level they’ve just really bought into.”
One luxury the Tomahawks certainly have, however, is a plethora of experience.
“We kind of hit the ground running,” Gould said. “(When you have) returning experience, you feel like you have a little bit of a leg up, because you can kind of pick up where you left off the year before.
“That’s an invaluable part of who we are — that level of experience,” he added. “They’ve played in and been in the environment of some really, really big games.”
And the Tomahawks hope to play in more of those big-time contests this season.
“Last year it was a lot of RaeQuan, but it was a lot bigger than just him — and he knew that, which was great,” Dobler said. “It was a team buy-in, and now we just kind of have the same thing and everyone continues to step up.
“You kind of want to leave your mark and again show that we weren’t just a one-man team last year,” he added, “and (that) we’re really a whole bought-in program.”