CENTRALIA — In a season that was shut down, delayed, changed up, and restarted, full of pandemic guidelines, uncertainty, and bad news, it ended about as poetically as possible for the Wahkiakum girls basketball team.
As the Mules ended their last pregame warm-up of the season with one last simple cheer: ‘Nets.’ Long after the final buzzer sounded on Wahkiakum’s 55-29 win over Toledo, the group of Mules stood together, coach Rob Garrett wearing one of those nets around his neck, the other draped around the girls 2B District IV trophy in the hands of Emmie Niemela and Megan Leitz. Everyone had bits of twine hanging clenched in their mouths, their hands throwing up three fingers — back-to-back-to-back District champions.
“Honestly, it’s the best feeling in the world,” Paige Mace said. “Coming out of my senior season with a win, cutting down the nets three times, winning the District title three times in a row, it’s an unreal feeling.”
The Mules did it like they did everything this season: with defense. A day after the Mules forced turnover after turnover and ran away from Ilwaco, Toledo did everything right, slowing the game down, forcing Wahkiakum into the half court, limiting the Mules to one shot, and holding them to one of their worst offensive outing of the year.
And from the get-go, it did not matter one bit.
Wahkiakum, which came into Thursday holding opponents to just a shade over 30 points per game, put together one final masterpiece, stifling Toledo for 32 minutes. The Mules’ 55 points on offense was their second-lowest output against a 2B side of the season, but Wahkiakum needed just 11 minutes of game time to get its lead to double-digits for good, because Toledo simply could not break its defense down.
“Not our best offensive performance by any means, kind of an uglier game, if you will,” Garrett said. “We actually started having that conversation two years ago. We call it ‘Building the Gap.’ When we think we’re up at the top, our goal is to build the gap, because we know that you can have a bad game on any night, or a poor shooting night on any night.
“If you build that gap enough, you’re able to have that poor game like tonight and still win in dominating fashion. The only way that happens is to be a phenomenal defensive team. You can’t always control if the shots go in, but you can control your heart and effort on defense, and your rotation.”
Wahkiakum’s whole season proved that the Mules were simply on another level from the rest of the 2Bs in Southwest Washington. Thursday evening showed just how wide the gap was.
The one lead Toledo held the whole game came when Stacie Spahr drew a foul down low and converted a free throw to make it 1-0. From there, the Mules ground out an 8-0 run — the first of many slow and steady runs that had less to do with an unstoppable force of an offense and more with the immovable object that was their defense.
Toledo didn’t get a field goal until three and a half minutes into the first quarter, and its three field goals made in the period turned out to be an omen of things to come.
Wahkiakum opened up the second quarter on a 9-0 run, keeping Toledo out of the scoring column for nearly seven minutes. Toledo didn’t break double-digits until four minutes into the third; the Mules only led 29-11 at that point, but by then an 18-point gap might as well have been 180.
“For us, knowing that we can have the worst offensive night and knowing that our defense is what’s going to help us win games is all we need,” Mace said. “We had a terrible offensive night, and our defense carried us through.”
Jansi Merz wrapped up her Wahkiakum career with a 21-point effort, battling down low with Spahr all game long, and doing what she’s done all season long, according to her coach and teammates: play angry.
“We’ll get her pissed off, and that’s when she gets unreal,” Mace said.
Reigha Niemeyer pitched in a trio of 3-pointers for nine points, Leitz scored seven, Niemala added six, Mace put in four, and Miya Kerstetter tacked on three in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a lot, but with the way the defense was playing, it was much more than enough.
Spahr led Toledo with nine points. Greenlee Clark scored six, while Emma Cline-Maier and Gracie Madill both had five.
As a team, Toledo finished at a rough 25% clip from the field and turned the ball over 16 times.
“I’m proud of our girls,” Toledo coach Brian Layton said. “They fought hard. They kind of kept it within striking distance, but they’re obviously one of the top teams in the state. They’re good. They’re really good.”
The question on Garrett’s mind after the final whistle blew was just how good his Mules were. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, there won’t be a State tournament in Spokane, and Wahkiakum won’t get a chance to compete for the elusive golden ball.
“I thought this group had a good opportunity to compete for that,” he said.
But after months upon months of not having sports at all, after the season was delayed by half a year, after having to wait to be the third season played during the re-emergence of high school athletics, the Mules got their chance to cut down one last set of nets and bring home hardware, and they did just that — though the trophy in question did make the drive back to Cathlamet in two pieces following a bit of an over-exuberant celebration.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment all season long, but really, we’ve been waiting for it all of our high school careers,” Merz said. “We knew this moment was going to come, we just knew we had to work for it. It’s really rewarding to be able to have that and to celebrate with each other.”