Change is imminent in the cyclical world of high school sports.
The graduation of a large, talented senior class or even the departure of just one or two standout players can transform the entire look of a team. Oftentimes, the turnover can force a league title contender or state tournament-caliber squad to take a step back.
The Arlington High School boys basketball team has been an exception.
The Eagles finished first in Wesco 3A/2A and claimed their first league title in a eight years a season ago. They also reached the state regionals for the third time in the past four full-length seasons.
Arlington graduated nine seniors off that team, including star guard and Wesco 3A/2A player of the year Ethan Martin. The strong senior class combined for over three-quarters of the Eagles’ scoring and nearly 70% of the production in most of the other major statistical categories.
With so much firepower to replace, it was time for Arlington to take a step back this winter, right?
Despite all the turnover, the Eagles just keep soaring.
Arlington is once again near the top of Wesco 3A/2A hierarchy this winter. The team entered Friday as one of just two in the league with two conference losses. This coming week the Eagles head into the Class 3A District 1 Tournament with one of the top seeds and a first-round bye. And it’s a mostly new group that has the team’s sights set on a milestone moment for the program — a trip back to the Tacoma Dome for the first time in a decade.
“I think this is one of the better teams I’ve had,” Arlington coach Nick Brown said. “I’m not surprised by that. I’m just surprised by how consistent they are being a young team.”
The Eagles returned just two players who saw significant varsity minutes last season. This season’s roster includes five sophomores, six call-ups from junior varsity and two more from the C-team.
Yet the squad has been rolling since the beginning of the season. After dropping its opener to 2A fifth-ranked Sehome, Arlington piled up seven straight victories by an average of 13.4 points, including a six-point win over 15-4 Camas.
Then after a loss to Mountlake Terrace at the end of December, the Eagles rattled off nine consecutive league victories in a perfect January. Arlington outscored opponents by 21.4 points over the stretch and didn’t allow over 48 points in a contest.
“We’ve put a lot of pieces together with a young team,” senior David Zachman said. “We’ve just been grinding.”
Brown credited his team’s quick transition in part to the program’s development at its lower levels. The junior-varsity squad is led by Jeff Bryson, who coached the Darrington boys to a 2003 Class B state championship and 10 state tournament appearance in 17 seasons.
Arlington’s junior-varsity team has had unbeaten seasons under Bryson and is only one win away from another one-loss campaign. The C-team also went unbeaten last year.
“We don’t have a team. We have a program here,” Brown said. “Our youth know what to do when they get here. They understand expectations and that we have a high standard of quality. We try to really make sure we hold our kids to that as not only players but as citizens.”
Brown also praised his players for quickly buying into their roles. With a mixture of five seniors, two juniors and five sophomores, many of his players had played with each other growing up, but the entire collective hadn’t been together as one.
As evident by their 16-3 record entering Friday, the Eagles didn’t have many hiccups learning to mesh.
“We’re all really close to each other,” sophomore Leyton Martin said of the team’s cohesion. “We trust one another.”
A stingy defense has been at the heart of Arlington’s success on the court.
The Eagles lead Wesco 3A/2A in fewest points allowed during league competition. The team is surrendering just 42.9 points per game — over four points better than the next closest team — and hasn’t allowed an opponent to surpass 48 points since the start of January.
Brown and players credited assistant coach Ronnie Pride’s defensive adjustments for the success.
“Ronnie has changed our defense around a lot,” Zachman said. “That’s our identity is as a defensive team. Defense first and then the offense will follow.”
Pride said the team uses multiple defenses to attack the opponent’s weaknesses, and the success has been the result of an overall team effort.
The team grades out a defensive player of the game after each contest. At least seven different Eagles have received that honor this season, Pride said.
“We have a lot of fighters on our team, guys that want to do the dirty work,” Martin said. “We have a lot of guys that just want to do whatever they can to win.”
Zachman and Martin have been the go-to options for Arlington offensively.
Zachman, the team’s lone returning starter, is averaging team highs with 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, including a season-high 36 points in the Eagles’ victory over rival Stanwood on Jan. 24. The 6-foot-6 center is a major threat in the paint and can also step outside and knock down 3-pointers.
“He’s lifted his game and become an incredible leader,” Brown said.
Martin has made a major leap this season. As a freshman, he averaged 4.4 points and two rebounds while playing complimentary role off the bench for the varsity team. This winter the crafty 6-foot guard has stuffed the stat sheet with an impressive line, tallying 14.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, six assists and 2.7 steals per contest.
“He’s so fast and so hard to guard,” Brown said. “… The sky is the limit for that kid.”
Martin’s breakout sophomore campaign has come despite suffering a broken arm in early October while playing quarterback for the Arlington football team. Brown said Martin wore a cast for the first two weeks of practice and wasn’t 100% when the team opened the season against Sehome. But Martin still battled through the injury and didn’t miss a game.
“He just fought through it,” Brown said. “We didn’t think he’d play until like the second or third week.”
Martin, Zachman and fellow co-captain Ty Rusko have also provided the leadership a team with so little varsity experience needs, Brown said.
“They just don’t have any room for messing around. There’s no room for any sort of complaining or distractions from what we’re trying to accomplish. That makes my job easier because it’s not always like that.”
Rusko, a senior, is one of two other varsity returners for Arlington. He played sparingly behind the large senior class a season ago and is one of many who have grown into a key role this season.
“We knew we were varsity players. We just had a good class in front of us (last season),” Rusko said of the new group. “We have a lot of heart in this group and a lot will to win.”
The Eagles aim to keep winning when postseason play starts with the district tournament next week. Arlington is searching for its fourth state regionals appearance in the past five full-length seasons and ultimately hopes to rid itself of its four-game losing streak in the regional round.
“We’ve been getting to regionals and that’s awesome, but we’re tired of that,” Brown said. “We want to get past that.”
“I’m excited to see these guys get put to the test,” he added. “… I’d like to see these guys experience state in the Tacoma Dome, because that’s a once in a lifetime.”
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