MOUNT VERNON — For Lakewood Cougars senior Alex Jensen, it’s almost more about the journey than it is the destination.
The 12th-seeded Cougars earned their first-ever trip to the 2A Hardwood Classic at the Yakima SunDome after securing a 53-49 win over 13th-seeded Franklin Pierce in a state-regional loser-out game Saturday at Mount Vernon High School.
But Jensen, a four-year starter and team captain, couldn’t help but remember the trials and tribulations the Cougars went through to get to the state’s biggest stage.
“Coming here in our freshman year, we really struggled,” Jensen said. “To top it off by being one of the best teams in the state and going to the (Sun)Dome, it’s special. Especially with a group like this. I’ve been growing up with all these guys, so it makes it even more sweet.
“If we were on top this whole time, it probably wouldn’t mean as much as it does now.”
The moment was ultra-sweet for the senior-laden Cougars, with seven players in their final year.
And it’s been a slow build for the Cougars.
The Cougars went 6-15 during Jensen’s first year and although they flipped that record to 16-5 in his sophomore year, Lakewood was routed in its only two bi-district games. Lakewood won a bi-district game in Jensen’s junior season, but the Cougars were bounced after losses to Anacortes and Mountlake Terrace.
Now, Jensen and the rest of the senior class will soak in their final moments of high school basketball in Yakima, a barrier they’ve been striving to surpass as a program.
“We’re all first-timers there, myself included,” said Lakewood head coach Anthony Wiederkehr, a 2006 Lakewood graduate and basketball player. “We’re going to have fun. We’re going to prepare like we always do, but I’m going to make sure we’ll make the trip fun and memorable. We’ll play loose and get as far as we possibly can.”
Lakewood led 44-35 entering the final quarter and by as many as 11 points in the fourth, but Franklin Pierce ripped off an 11-0 run to tie the game at 47-47 with just over three minutes to play.
Senior Morgan Stacey sunk a pair of free throws and the two teams traded buckets before Stacey made the game’s defining defensive play.
After the Cougars were stopped on the offensive end, the Cardinals registered two looks to tie it, but Stacey planted his feet and drew a charge on Claudell Quinland driving to the basket with just 31.7 seconds remaining.
“That was a huge play and it definitely won us the game,” Wiederkehr said.
Jensen sunk two free throws to officially ice it.
Although the Cougars are senior heavy, it was sophomore Blake Conyers that came off the bench and poured in a team-high 13 points, including a trio of 3-pointers, that helped the Cougars assemble a second-half lead.
Lakewood (15-9) will face No. 4 Lindbergh in the first round of the 2A Hardwood Classic on Wednesday in Yakima.