Longtime coach Nalin Sood says there’s no secret formula behind the lockdown defenses his Mountlake Terrace High School boys basketball program churns out year after year.
No magic dust or magic words.
Just plenty of dedication, pride and good old-fashioned hard work.
“I don’t have magic dust in my pocket that I can just sprinkle and say ‘great defense,’” Sood said. “It’s work — day in and day out. It’s not easy. But when it works, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“And these kids this year have really, really bought in to it. … It’s just really a credit to the kids.”
The Hawks have once again leaned on their strong defense this season, limiting opponents to just 49.2 points per game. They’ve held 16 of their 19 opponents to fewer than 60 points — including four teams below 40 points and two below 30.
Their defense is a major reason why they’ve won 16 of their past 17 games. It’s a major reason why they captured the Class 3A District 1 Tournament title last week. And it’s a major reason why they’re headed to state for the 10th time in the past 13 full-length seasons.
No. 9 seed Mountlake Terrace (17-2) faces No. 16 seed Kelso (15-8) in a 3A loser-out state regional game Saturday morning at Jackson High School, with the winner advancing to next week’s Hardwood Classic in the Tacoma Dome.
“It’s something that has been a staple and the standard at Terrace for as long as I can remember,” Hawks senior guard Vito Mkrtychyan said. “Day one at tryouts, the first day, we’re working on defensive drills. So it’s really not a surprise to see the results after each game.”
Sood said hard-nosed man-to-man defense has been a program centerpiece ever since longtime coach Roger Ottmar was at the helm.
Sood played for Ottmar at Mountlake Terrace and then coached under him as an assistant for 13 seasons before taking over as the Hawks’ head coach in 2000. Both coaches are now in the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s coach Ottmar’s defensive philosophy (and) defensive system,” Sood said. “He was a man-to-man coach. I learned that from him and it’s just something that we’ve maintained.
“And fortunately the kids have really bought into it, and we’ve been able to sustain that for a long time.”
They sure have.
The Hawks have held opponents to 53 points per game or fewer in each of the past 12 seasons.
And this winter, Mountlake Terrace led Wesco 3A/2A in scoring defense for the third time in the past four full seasons. The Hawks yielded just 47.8 points per game in conference play — which was 5.3 points per game fewer than the next-closest team in the 16-team league.
“Through the program, there’s a sense of accountability with what we do defensively,” Sood said. “We’re a man-to-man program from varsity all the way down to ‘C’ team. And then in our feeder program, we try to promote that also.
“The kids take a lot of pride in it,” he added. “… Through our program, the older kids really instill that in the younger kids.”
Part of that pride comes from the nature of playing man-to-man defense, as opposed to zone.
“Having that pride in locking up (an opponent) is what all of us like to do,” Mountlake Terrace senior guard Jeffrey Anyimah said. “If you win a game through zone defensively, yeah, you feel good. You won the game. But when you lock a team up man-to-man and you win that game, it feels so much better. It’s 10 times the feeling.”
“It’s kind of like a mano y mano type (of) thing,” Mkrtychyan added. “You’ve gotta take pride in that.”
The Hawks also take pride in reaching specific goals on defense. Every game, they set target point totals that they want to hold their opponent or certain opposing players to.
They definitely met their defensive goals in last week’s district semifinal, when they shut down Arlington’s high-powered attack in a state-clinching win. Mountlake Terrace limited the Eagles to just 46 points, which was 24 points below their season average.
“We promote and celebrate the defensive accomplishments,” Sood said. “… When we watch the game on tape and go through our stats, we’re gonna acknowledge the defensive stats more so than the offensive stats.”
The Hawks also use their defense to create transition opportunities, as they did against Arlington last week when they forced a number of turnovers that led to fastbreak baskets.
“When we get running, I don’t think anyone can stop us,” Mkrtychyan said. “It’s definitely a big part of our game.”
And on the offensive end, Mountlake Terrace is led by a talented playmaker in Anyimah.
The standout 5-foot-11 guard averages 14 points per game and possesses a well-rounded scoring arsenal, which was on full display during his 24-point performance against Arlington last week. He smoothly sank mid-range jump shots, used his speed and athleticism to weave through the defense, and showed physicality while finishing strong at the rim.
“Jeffrey’s work ethic is second to none,” Sood said. “Jeffrey’s passion for basketball is second to none. And he’s a great leader for his teammates.
“He’s gonna go down as one of our all-time greats,” Sood added. “I’ll fully realize next year how much I miss a kid like Jeffrey.”
Sophomore forward Zaveon Jones — a 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back on Mountlake Terrace’s football team — is another impact player for the Hawks. He averages 13.3 points per game and is a tough matchup inside with his combination of strength and agility.
Jones has come through in some big moments this season. In a key win over Shorecrest last month, he scored seven straight points during a late go-ahead run. And he had a similar spurt in last week’s district championship game, scoring eight consecutive points during a late go-ahead run to beat Ferndale.
“He’s so crafty down low (and) he’s so strong,” Sood said. “You don’t see kids that are that strong who have that kind of footwork and that kind of touch. … He’s been tremendous for us.”
Mkrtychyan, 6-foot-4 senior forward Adison Mattix, junior guard Chris Meegan and sophomore guard Jaxon Dubiel each add six-plus points per game. Don Brown, a 6-foot-4 sophomore post, provides quality minutes too.
And of course, they all play key roles for the Hawks’ stingy defense.
“I really believe in this team,” Anyimah said. “I’m really confident with this group of guys that we can match up against anybody and win any game.”
Mountlake Terrace’s defense should receive a good test Saturday, when it faces a Kelso team that exploded for 79 points in a state play-in victory over Shorecrest earlier this week.
“I think we can go as far as we want to,” Mkrtychyan said. “As long as we keep playing Terrace defense like we know how and running in transition like we do, we’ll definitely be fine. All the teams at this point are good, so we just have to come out with the right mentality every game.”