For years, Sultan was an afterthought in the high school girls basketball scene.
But with a massive turnaround over the past two seasons, the Turks are putting themselves on the map.
And they’re taking aim at school history.
Led by standout senior Grace Trichler and a talented freshman class, Sultan enters the Emerald Sound Conference Tournament with a legitimate chance to earn its program’s first-ever trip to state.
“Last year’s COVID season was kind of a breakthrough season for us,” fourth-year Turks coach Todd Weideman said. “And this is just building on top of it.”
During last spring’s abbreviated slate, Trichler led Sultan to a 10-4 record. It was the Turks’ first winning season in more than a decade — and just their second in the past 15 years.
But after graduating six seniors from last spring’s team, it would’ve been understandable if Sultan had regressed this winter.
Instead, it’s been quite the opposite.
With an influx of skilled freshmen, the Turks have taken another step forward. They enter the postseason with a 14-2 record, including a recent landmark victory over perennial Class 1A state power King’s.
“I knew it wasn’t gonna be easy,” Weideman, a 1994 Sultan alum and former three-sport prep athlete, said of the program’s turnaround. “But I knew that looking at our youth program, … there was gonna be something special coming.”
He sure was right about that.
Sultan’s talented freshmen class makes up nine of the 12 players on its roster — including four of its top six scorers. At times, Trichler is surrounded by four freshmen on the floor at once.
That’s certainly not normal for a varsity team — especially one that’s competing for a state berth.
“You’re asking that group of freshmen to step on the court at the varsity level … and perform basically like seniors on the floor,” Weideman said. “And they’re out there doing it day in and day out.
“Do they have their freshman moments? Yeah. But if you didn’t know that they’re all freshmen, you wouldn’t know it when you watch them play.”
Nearly the entirety of the Turks’ freshman class has been playing together since they were youngsters in the Sultan Youth Basketball program. At one point, Weideman said, the group played as an all-girls team against co-ed teams.
“They were playing against boys coming up,” Weideman said. “And I think that helped them get that toughness that they have about them.”
As eighth graders last spring, the current crop of freshmen were allowed to practice with the high school program and play on the junior varsity team. That was made possible by a Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rule that applied to schools at the 1A level or below for last year’s condensed seasons.
Weideman said that experience helped the freshmen acclimate to the varsity level this season.
“Coming in, we didn’t have to spend a lot of time teaching offensive and defensive concepts,” Weideman said. “They already knew what we were doing.
“And their basketball IQ is out the roof, because these girls, they eat and sleep basketball. If they’re not playing, they’re watching film. Or if it’s the offseason, they’re doing 3-on-3 or other tournaments.
“When they got here,” he added, “we let the reins off and let ‘em go.”
Trichler, the daughter of Sultan boys basketball coach Nate Trichler, led the Turks with 23.5 points per game last spring. But with her team featuring a more balanced attack this season, the four-year starting guard hasn’t needed to put up big point totals every night.
Trichler still leads Sultan with a team-high 14.4 points per game. But she’s also averaging 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 5.3 steals per contest.
“This year has been a real different year for Grace,” Weideman said. “The ability for her to play basketball as a floor leader has really changed her game. She doesn’t need to be the scorer. She has a great group of kids around her that are all scoring — and she does other things.”
And beyond the stats, Trichler and fellow team captain Faith Anderson have provided invaluable leadership for such a young group.
“They’re very good role models and leaders for the team,” freshman forward Cascadia Yates said. “They’re always so supportive and they make sure that everyone is included.”
Yates and Anderson have combined to form an imposing interior duo. Yates, a 6-foot transfer from Monroe, averages 9.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Anderson, a 6-foot-1 junior, adds 8.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest.
“It just changes the game,” Weideman said of having two 6-foot posts on the floor at once. “Teams have gotta figure, ‘How do I guard two bigs and Grace?’ And we have not seen a lot of man (defense) this year, because you can’t do that. You’ve gotta play zone.
“But we can spread the zone with our outside shooting. And then with the bigs inside, they’re just powerful and strong and they love to score every time they get the ball.”
Trichler is flanked by twin freshman guards Ranah Rylah and Shyann Rylah, who give Sultan additional ball-handling and scoring options in the backcourt. Ranah averages 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while the 5-foot Shyann adds 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest.
And versatile freshman Taylor Cushing has excelled in her role as the first player off the bench. Described by Weideman as a “sparkplug,” Cushing provides 7.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
“It’s just really nice to have a group of girls who all have really big hearts for the game and for each other,” Anderson said. “I’ve played for a long time, and this has been the best team I’ve ever played on.”
Sultan’s program turnaround has coincided with the formation of the Emerald Sound Conference’s competitively balanced two-division setup.
Last spring, the Turks shared the second-tier Coho Division title with Bear Creek after going 9-3 in league play.
But this season, none of the other seven Coho Division teams were able to keep up with Sultan. The Turks dominated the division, finishing 10-0 in league play with a 30-point average margin of victory.
And with its 40-38 non-league win over King’s last weekend, Sultan proved it can compete with the top teams in the Emerald Sound Conference’s upper tier. King’s finished second in the Chinook Division and beat division champion Seattle Academy earlier this season.
Furthermore, the Turks’ victory over King’s served as a barometer of just how far their program has come. It snapped Sultan’s 20-game losing streak to the Knights and was the program’s first win over King’s since Jan. 19, 2010. The Turks had lost the teams’ previous 20 matchups by an average margin of 34.3 points.
“It’s one of those milestones that you want to achieve and kind of get that monkey off your back,” Weideman said. “… It was really huge. It was a great building point for our program.”
As the Coho Division champion, Sultan enters the Emerald Sound Conference Tournament as the No. 7 seed. The Turks open tournament play against No. 10 seed Granite Falls (7-9) on Saturday.
With a victory, Sultan would set up a pivotal rematch against No. 2 seed King’s (14-7) in the tournament’s quarterfinal round.
The winner of that game would then have three chances to clinch a state berth with a victory. The loser of the potential Sultan-King’s rematch would have to win four consecutive elimination games, including a winner-to-state crossover contest against possibly 1A top-ranked Nooksack Valley or 1A second-ranked Lynden Christian.
“The real work starts now,” Weideman said. “They’ve got a lot of confidence, but they know that they’ve gotta go out and compete. … They understand that they have to work, and they have a goal to win one game at a time.”
And if Sultan can make program history by earning its first-ever state tournament berth?
“That’d be amazing,” Trichler said. “A lot of us have grown up going to (Sultan basketball) games and always being a part of the program. So it’d be so cool to finally have all of us … make it to state together.”