Sultan’s Wendy Asper (left) and Taylor Cushing (right) reach for the ball during a girls basketball practice at Sultan High School on Thursday. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Sultan’s Wendy Asper (left) and Taylor Cushing (right) reach for the ball during a girls basketball practice at Sultan High School on Thursday. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

For Sultan girls basketball, making state ‘just the start’

The Turks reached state for the first time in history, and with a talented group of sophomores the future has never looked brighter.

The Sultan High School girls basketball team had its doubters.

After winning back-to-back titles in the Emerald Sound Conference’s lower-tier Coho Division, the Turks made the move to the upper-tier Chinook Division this season. The step up in competition correlated with the departure of star Grace Trichler, who graduated after setting career program records in scoring, assists and steals.

“There was a lot of people that did not believe we should be moving up, especially after losing Grace,” sophomore guard Taylor Cushing said. “… We worked our butts off to get here and we (had) to show everybody that we deserve to be here.”

Sultan proved its doubters wrong with another winning season and made history in the process.

The Turks navigated their tougher schedule with poise and finished second in the seven-team division behind Class 1A powerhouse King’s. They entered the 1A District 2 tournament earlier this month as the second seed as a result. And last Wednesday in a 47-35 victory over Cedar Park Christian (Bothell), the team did something no other Sultan girls squad had ever done — qualify for the state tournament.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” senior post Faith Anderson said. “Everyone was just filled with happiness and it was just an amazing feeling. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

The 14th-seeded Turks travel to Davis High School in Yakima on Saturday to face 11th-seeded Zillah in their first-ever state tournament game. The winner advances to the second round of the 1A tournament Wednesday at the Yakima Valley SunDome.

Win or lose, the future has never looked brighter for the Sultan girls.

The continued growth of a deep, talented sophomore class has been the catalyst for the program’s continued success this season. Nine of the team’s 12 varsity players come from the class. So do the Turks’ top four scorers.

With nearly the entire roster slated to come back for two more seasons, Sultan believes this is just the start of what could be a truly special run.

“I really believe that this is building,” first-year Sultan head coach Quamy Kendall said. “This is just the start of it.”

Early this season Sultan had its own doubts, though. The team started 0-3 against a tough opening stretch and still needed to figure out who was going to step up during tough times and big moments without Trichler.

“When we lost Grace it was a shocker to them,” Kendall said. “That’s why early in the year we took some lumps.”

Rather than relying on an individual to be the savior, the Turks learned to lean on each other and get the job done as a collective.

Kendall said togetherness has been the message to the team throughout the season. His players have taken that message to heart.

“We’re a family,” sophomore guard Ranah Rylah said. “Together really means something to us. … Together forever for our family.”

Their balanced play on the court has been a prime example of the philosophy paying off.

“We’ve had so many of these ladies step up into roles that they’ve never had done before,” Kendall said, “and they’ve excelled in it.”

A handful of players have led the team in scoring throughout the season. Sultan has five players averaging between 5.2 and 12.1 points, three averaging more than seven rebounds and three averaging over two steals.

“We’re each so talented in our own ways,” said sophomore post Cascadia Yates, who averages a team-high 12.1 points. “… I feel like everyone has kind of made their own role.”

Kendall pointed to a mid-January comeback victory over Seattle Academy as a major stepping stone for the team’s confidence. The Turks trailed by 14 points in the second half. In prior games, that deficit may have ballooned into the 20s. Instead Sultan rallied for a win over a team that went on to reach the state tournament.

“That was the start of the belief,” Kendall said. “It’s been a really amazing thing to watch when you’re in here every day and watch these ladies. It’s really impressive to see them mature.”

The success of three consecutive winning seasons has created a buzz around the program. Kendall, who previously served as an assistant for the girls and boys programs, remembers a time when the girls team struggled with turnout numbers.

This season Sultan has 26 players in its program — including 20 between just its freshman and sophomore classes — and it expects to field a C-team next season with high turnout numbers this year at the middle school.

“It’s night and day,” Kendall said.

An outpouring of support has also come from within the community. The number of fans at home games has continued to grow, players and coaches find themselves being stopped and congratulated for their achievements, and the town’s mayor visited the school Friday for the team’s celebratory send off.

“It’s really nice to see how we’re getting recognized by the community,” Anderson said. “People that I don’t even know sometimes will come up and say, ‘Congratulations. You’re doing so good.’”

In an effort to get his young team prepared for the state tournament, Kendall had guest speakers share their own experiences at practices this week. The guests included Sultan boys coach Nate Trichler, members of the Sultan boys’ 2009 state qualifying team Jordan Nichols and Theo VandenEkart, and Lake Stevens boys coach Alex Iverson, who led the Stanwood girls to a sixth-place finish at the 3A state tournament last season.

“Hearing different people’s perspectives kind of helps with my nerves,” Rylah said. “… All the stories were pretty much the underdogs coming in and they pushed through and made it through the first round. It’s just crazy to think we’re the underdogs but we can still go far”

Kendall hopes he’ll have to find another guest speaker for next week, which would mean Saturday’s trip to Yakima won’t be Sultan’s last in the coming days.

“Hopefully on Saturday we can make history by winning and getting to the (Sun)Dome and taking that next step,” Kendall said. “I really do feel like we can do it. We’ve got the kids here.”

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