On paper, South Whidbey boys basketball looked like the favorites.
The Falcons were champions of the Cascade Conference and had the home-court advantage in the semifinals of the 1A District 1 Tournament.
Their opponents, Nooksack Valley, were a middle-of-the-pack team in the Northwest Conference with a less superb record. But they had size, poise and experience.
In the end, that’s what counted.
The Pioneers beat the Falcons 65-46 at Erickson Gymnasium on Feb. 7. South Whidbey (16-6 overall) dropped to a loser-out, elimination game against King’s on Feb. 9, which was played after The Record’s deadline Friday morning. Nooksack Valley (12-10) advanced to the championship game against Lynden Christian on Feb. 10.
Junior Kody Newman couldn’t sugarcoat it. The loss hurt.
“We got the home court, we had 200, 300 fans in there and we couldn’t capitalize,” Newman said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re on the road, if you’re at home. Sometimes it just comes down to who scored more and that game, they did.”
“They wanted it more.”
The Falcons trailed the entire game. Nooksack Valley outscored South Whidbey 21-12 in the third quarter, despite the Falcons’ full-court press.
Nooksack Valley finished strong, outscoring the Falcons 15-10 in the fourth quarter.
Playing from behind isn’t the Falcons’ strong suit, head coach Mike Washington said.
“When we’re not scoring, we struggle with energy and intensity,” Washington said. “That’s why we pressed to pick up the intensity.”
The Pioneers’ physical presence was also a difference maker. Two of their strongest players, seniors Casey Bauman and Jordan Veening, are both 6-foot-6.
Falcon sophomore Carson Wrightson, a 6-foot-6 forward, was out with a concussion. It left 6-foot-6 sophomore Levi Buck and 6-foot-3 sophomore Kole Nelson, who came off the bench, with the tall task of covering the experienced, fourth-year playmakers.
Whenever other Falcon defenders came to Nelson and Buck’s aid near the baseline, Bauman and Veening passed to their athletic guards waiting to shoot outside the key. They sank most of their shots.
“You give up something in a defense,” Washington said. “You just have to take a gamble and hope one pays off. Tonight, they had inside going and outside going. They were just physically stronger.”
Washington was well aware of the Pioneers’ capabilities when he watched them play toward the end of the regular season. He knew the Pioneers were battle-tested and that the Falcons would have a fight on their hands.
“That Northwest Conference is tough,” Washington said. “If you go look at the boys side and the girls side over the first three days of this tournament, the Northwest Conference has won every game against the Cascade Conference.”
“I think they came in here confident. I think they knew that we had some holes,” he added.
Buck’s impression of the game was poignant.
“We were honestly just outplayed tonight,” Buck said. “They had size on us, were knocking down shots that we didn’t think they could hit and they just outplayed us.”
Senior guard Lewis Pope led the Falcons in scoring with 27 points, while sophomore Dexter Jokinen was second with 12.
Newman, the Falcons’ second leading scorer throughout the season, was held to one of his lowest scoring outputs of the season with five points.
Newman had a similar outlook on the game as Buck.
“They came in ready,” Newman said. “We didn’t. We got down on the lead and got down on ourselves. And they took advantage and beat us when we were down.”
Washington and the rest of the Falcons knew their backs were against a wall coming into Friday night’s game against King’s.
But, if the Falcons are eliminated, Washington won’t think any less of the team.
“If we lose Friday and get out, this still has been a successful season,” Washington said.