For the first time in 20 years, a La Center High School boys basketball team returned from the Class 1A state tournament with some hardware.
The Wildcats won three of their four games at last week’s Class 1A state tournament at the SunDome in Yakima to earn fourth place. It was the first top-8 finish for La Center since it won back-to-back state titles in 1996 and 1997.
“I felt we had a good chance to get some wins over there,’’ said La Center coach Jeremy Ecklund. “I tell you what, we just played great basketball.’’
Ecklund just completed his second season as head coach of the Wildcats’ program, of which he has been a part of for 10 years now. The La Center coach had particular praise for how hard his players played, particularly at the defensive end of the court.
“We only gave up an average of 45.5 points per game,’’ said Ecklund, whose team finished the season with a 19-6 overall record after going 12-11 last season. “The boys played hard.’’
Ecklund some a common theme of opposing coaches after games against La Center was, “that was ugly; we didn’t play very well.’’
“That’s what we do to you,’’ Ecklund said. “We play so hard it frustrates other teams and makes it hard for them to have a real good game against us.’’
Ecklund pointed out that the playoff games the Wildcats did lose were to Zillah (at regionals), this year’s state champions, and King’s, who won the title a year ago and finished third at this year’s tournament.
“I kind of think a lot of people didn’t recognize how good we were throughout the season,’’ Ecklund said.
No La Center player exemplifies that hard-working style more than senior Jake Wise, a bruising 6-3 post player who averaged 18.5 points and 13 rebounds a game at the state tournament. Wise was voted to the all-tournament second team.
“Jake was definitely in the middle of it all,’’ Ecklund said. “He was unbelievable. Those stats alone are awesome. He ended up second team for the state tournament, but he should have been first team. He was just a leader.’’
Wise also made 32 of his 39 free throw attempts in the tournament. He made 14 of his 16 attempts at the line in a 49-42 overtime win over Warden on Friday. That victory earned the Wildcats a trip to Saturday’s trophy round and prevented their elimination and it was Wise’s 28 points and 22 rebounds that were largely responsible for La Center’s win.
“He just pushed the boys,’’ said Ecklund. “He led the team in charges taken. I think he had five in one game. In that Warden game, you could just tell that he decided the season was not going to end that day. He absolutely just took that game over.’’
Wise also had 22 points and 13 rebounds in Saturday’s 51-38 win over Newport. In La Center’s final two games at the state tournament, Wise was the only Wildcat who scored in double figures.
La Center point guard Hunter Ecklund, just a freshman, fared well in his first state tournament appearance. Ecklund, the coach’s son, averaged 12.5 points a game including 20 in the opening game victory over La Salle and 15 in a 51-48 loss to King’s on Thursday. Ecklund only committed eight turnovers in the four games.
“I was impressed both as a coach and as a dad with the way that he played,’’ coach Ecklund said. “He was kind of fearless at times. He doesn’t let the pressure get to him. He’s the kind of kid when you watch him play you don’t know if he is winning or losing. He handled the ball for us most of the time and he ended up playing the most minutes. For him to have only eight turnovers is absolutely phenomenal.’’
Senior Matt Baher had 13 points and five rebounds in the loss to King’s and 11 points and 11 rebounds in the win over La Salle. Sophomore Avery Seter had 16 points in the win over La Salle.
With Hunter Ecklund and Seter both returning, along with a number of other young Wildcats, La Center’s coach is optimistic it won’t take another 20 years for the program to bring home another trophy from the state tournament.
“I think the future is bright, especially with Avery and Hunter returning,’’ Jeremy Ecklund said. “They’re both gym rats, they’re basketball junkies. Hunter was first-team all league and Avery was second-team all league. We have a lot of other younger guys who got to be a part of the state run. I feel pretty confident that we will be back there the next couple of years for sure.’’