After Ben Olesen’s floater gave the Jackson boys basketball team a 58-56 win over Kamiak on Jan. 11 to drop the Knights’ record to 6-7, Kamiak’s players met for what was a routine monthly team meeting that turned into an intense and passionate discussion.
“Most people voiced how they felt,” Knights coach Cory West said. “People called each other out, people got on each other, and I think that brought everyone closer together because since that meeting, we’ve been a completely different team.
Indeed they have been.
Kamiak (15-8, 10-4 Wesco 4A) has won nine of its 10 games since the meeting, captured the 4A Northwest District championship and handed Glacier Peak its only two losses to Wesco 4A opponents this season.
“We just wanted to be more focused every day, and we wanted to come together more and really build that bond together as a team and a family,” Knights senior Patrick Olson said. “At the start of the season it was kind of like we really weren’t together like that. … It was a tough meeting, but after that we really came together, we really became a family.”
Just like any family, the Kamiak players didn’t struggle to air their grievances with each other. The team features seven seniors that have been playing together since middle school; a few of them have been on the court with each other since elementary school as a part of the school’s feeder program.
“Our team, especially the seniors, are pretty close off the court as well. We feel (we’re) able to approach each other with concerns and not have anyone take offense to that,” Knights senior Carson Tuttle said. “Everybody was able to voice their opinions, and I think that really helped us. That fact that we’re so close made it easy for us to make those changes and adjust.”
Since the meeting, Kamiak’s players have embraced the message that their coaches have been trying to hammer home all season long. They’re selling out for each other on the defensive end and playing with an unselfishness on offense that West said he hadn’t previously seen.
The Knights have allowed just 51.4 points per game during their dominating 10-game stretch, second-best in Wesco 4A over that period and 8.3 points per game fewer than the 59.7 points per game they allowed during their first 13 games of the season. They’ve held opponents to 50 points or fewer in five games since the meeting.
”It’s just getting everyone to buy in,” West said. “It just took a little longer than expected. … We got guys to start playing for each other and listening to and executing what we’ve been preaching on offense and defense. That’s made the biggest difference.”
West also highlighted improved play from the the team’s reserves, including seniors Landon Overturf and Jordan Meyer and junior Dakota Buening. The energy they bring when they’re not in the game has helped inspire the starters.
“When we see all the guys stand up and cheering for us, we really want to play hard and make plays for them and keep them hyped up,” said Olson, a guard and co-captain. “I feel like it goes a long way seeing that everyone supports you.”
Kamiak won its first district title since 2005 after beating Glacier Peak 72-56 on Feb. 15. The 72 points allowed was a season high for the Grizzlies.
“Since we were young, we were always talking about winning championships and getting to state,” Olson said. “It’s cool now that we’ve got the chance to get to the (Tacoma) Dome, and we (got) that district championship.”
The win was especially sweet for the seniors like Tuttle, who were a part of a team that fell just short of a district championship during the 2015-16 season, losing to Cascade 76-69.
“I knew I wanted to get back to (a district title game) and play in that atmosphere and environment,” said Tuttle, who leads the team in scoring at 22.7 points per game. “It’s just a special feeling.”
The next step for the Knights is to do something the school hasn’t done since opening its doors in 1993 — win a state tournament game.
The task will be tall for Kamiak, which will play Kentwood, the defending 4A state champion, in a loser-out Class 4A regional playoff matchup at 4 p.m. Saturday at Auburn Mountainview High School.
Kentwood graduated many key players off its state title squad but finished in first place in the 4A North Puget Sound League with a 13-1 conference record (19-7 overall).
West said his team must maintain its recent level of execution, rebound defensively and work the ball inside to have a chance to win.
The Knights’ No. 1 option in the post is 6-foot-7 senior Danny Sharpe, who’s second on the team in scoring at 11.3 points per game.
Kamiak has reached the regional round of the state tournament in three consecutive seasons.
“At this point in the season, it’s eat or be eaten,” Tuttle said. “It’s loser out.”