Mar 15, 2015

Post NWAC women's tournament thoughts: Alison Crumb and the Pirates' chip

Peninsula gets the upset of the tournament over Umpqua.
I think, overall, my favorite moment from this year's NWAC tournament was my interaction with Peninsula head coach Alison Crumb in the moments after the Pirates celebrated the first NWAC title in program history.

Two other sportswriters and I cornered Crumb behind the curtain as the Clark and Edmonds men were warming up for their title game. Two of us introduced ourselves after Crumb paused to take off her "lucky boots," which she later told me would be staying near and dear for next season.

Crumb politely shook my hand as I told her my name, visibly exhausted, but didn't seem to make the connection to who I was until I went with the pen name which has become commonplace in the NWAC circle -- Joward.

"Oh, I know who you are," she said with a wry smile. "You're the one who said we weren't contenders."

At first I was a little taken aback by her statement, but as we continued to talk, I realized it was that same chip on her shoulder -- and one shared by her team -- that made the victory special. Given, Lane was out of their depth and injured, but the run made to the title game was nothing short of remarkable for Peninsula.

I don't think anybody outside of Port Angeles would have picked Peninsula over Umpqua in the semifinals. I certainly didn't. My bracket had been busted from day one when my No. 2 team, Walla Walla, fell to Clark in the first round 61-60, but I still held on to one sure reality: Umpqua was better than any team here, and they'd make a winner of me by rolling their way to a championship.

That is, until Peninsula strolled in and shot the lights out of the Toyota Center and blew past the mighty Riverhawks 84-70.

This might get under Crumb's skin, and that's not my intention, but I still have to think Umpqua was the best team there. The Riverhawks didn't match up with Peninsula well, especially when the Pirates started hitting shots from Pasco, and I think that's what probably did Lane in as well.

Both Lane and Umpqua are built to play inside out. Ashli Payne is a beast, and is impossible to guard. She's too fast to stick with on the perimeter, but too big and strong to contend with in the paint.

If not for the unbelievably clutch three-point shooting from Peninsula, I think we probably see a Lane-Umpqua final, which Umpqua probably wins -- another all-Southern Region NWAC title game.

But that's not the way it went down. Peninsula was better on those two days, which is the beauty of such a compact tournament format. It's almost a pity that the NWAC has decided to move on, opening the tournament up to bids and playing the first round on the home court of the higher seeds instead of a central location. The current format, I feel, gives a little more room for Cinderella teams -- not that Peninsula fits such a description, they were a No. 1 seed -- to make a run at things if they can get hot.

Teams like Peninsula, a team I had ranked seventh coming in and eventually beat my fifth ranked Lane Titans in the final, benefit from things like that. I actually mentioned the value of momentum in their final ranking, but shot myself in the foot by actually overlooking their hot streak.

That said, the Pirates are clearly better than the rest of the Northern Region -- at least on paper. There was a big gap between Peninsula and Bellevue this season, and the Pirates return a good number of players, including Imani Smith -- definitely one of the standout freshman at the tournament this year.

Maybe the title-formula is depth and an ability to peak at the right time. That's how Columbia Basin has done it over the years. The Hawks won with ferocious defense and a patient offense, switching out their players often to keep up the pace on the defensive end of the floor.

The best thing about that is it doesn't limit outer-lying teams from contention. Defense is as much about effort and energy as anything else, and defense doesn't require a laundry list of standout bigs.

Maybe -- just maybe -- the secret to winning a title isn't to emerge from the best region as the league's most battle-tested team. The East definitely isn't what it used to be. The south is still a madhouse, and had three teams in the semifinals, but we're starting to hear war-mongering in the Northern and Western regions as well. Centralia has been good for a number of years now, and Lower Columbia is turning into a strong program.

Peninsula already made their mark on history.

Mar 6, 2015

Edmonds, Big Bend on top for tourney

NWAC Men's Basketball
Championship Edition: Broadcasts | Mens Bracket | Tournament stats

I cover high school athletics for a living, and to my eye, the Southern Region is kind of like that football team from some small town across the state nobody has heard of. They're rough-and-tumble and typically finish the season with a solid record but no respect. Then they come into the playoffs and beat the daylights out of everyone.

The South seems to fit that bill rather well, given that they've won five of the last eight NWAC titles, including last season's Cinderella run from Portland in their first-ever visit to the Tri-Cities. Oh, and let's just leave this out here to dry: region-leading Chemeketa had to forfeit their entire season for using an ineligible player, according to NWAC sources. That hurts, but it opens up a door for a little more madness in the first round.

The most intriguing match out of the gate is also the earliest, an 8 a.m. bout between No. 6 Highline and No. 7 Wenatchee Valley. If you can't be there, don't worry. I will be, and I'll have the league Twitter handle at my disposal for updates. You can also watch games online (link is above) and check the league website for post game recaps.

Updated coaches rankings, released on March 3, have been posted under each team's previous ratings. You can see the full coaches poll here.


1. Edmonds (24-5, 12-2 North)
Previous ranking: No. 3, No. 3 Coaches
Coaches: No. 1

The format at the championships is simple, really. Win four games in a row, and you come home with a fancy, shiny trophy. And when it has come to big games, Edmonds has an edge coming down the stretch — much of which comes from perhaps the biggest game we've seen in the last stretch of the year. The Tritons held on to a nine-point halftime lead and beat former No. 1 Bellevue 84-81 [box] on Feb. 18, putting themselves firmly in the title picture for the Northern Region. From an outsiders perspective, the win shouts a few things heading into the tournament: Firstly, the Tritons have a certain element of mental toughness which will come in handy as they were able to withstand a solid second-half push from perhaps the best defensive team in the league. Secondly, Edmonds had six players in double figures and had 11 assists to the 'Dogs' four. Balanced scoring isn't a necessary key to a title — we saw Cheheles Tapscott take over a few years back — but sharing the ball and playing good defense certainly is.

No. 1 Edmonds will play Mt. Hood at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.


2. Big Bend (23-7, 11-3 East)
Previous ranking: No. 4, No. 4 Coaches
Coaches: No. 4

While the Runnin' Viks do have a blemish in their last section of games — a 58-53 loss [box] to No. 7 Wenatchee Valley on Feb. 25 — it's not all bad to lose a close game to one of the best defensive teams in the NWAC. What might be concerning is that it seems the Knights definitely controlled the tempo, managing to slow Big Bend's offense by 25 points from their average of just over 78 points per contest. While Big Bend isn't exactly among the leaders in scoring, it is interesting that they have no one in the top 20 for individuals. They do, however, have the best percentage three-point shooter in the tournament in Alanzo Ramos, but as coaches will always remind their players, shooting is difficult in the cavernous Toyota Center for the first few days while players adjust to having so much space behind the backboard. Will the Vikings put things together and make a run to the final? Maybe. Big Bend has probably the easiest foursome with Green River, Lane and Everett, but it depends on whether the offense gets hot and the defense can hold teams down, especially as there is a possible match up with Bellevue — very similar to Wenatchee Valley — looming in the semifinals.

No. 2 Big Bend will face Green River at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening.


3. Bellevue (25-4, 12-2)
Previous ranking: No. 1, No. 1 Coaches
Coaches: No. 2

Playing Bellevue is like wrestling a heavyweight: if they get a lead on you, good luck coming back in a hurry. Bellevue's style — slow, methodical and defensively sound — seems to fit the NWAC tournament perhaps better than anyone, as the Bulldogs come in as the league's best defensive team. They don't play an awful lot of possessions, the times they DO have the ball, they make good use of it. Bellevue averages 1.29 points per possession, tied four fourth in the league, and does serious damage from the free throw line. Again, shooting is more difficult when there are a few thousand seats behind the backboard, but the Bulldogs don't shoot many three-pointers and free throw shooting is a little easier to fix. Bellevue's foursome includes Clark, which could make a fascinating quarterfinal match up — but both teams have to get there first.

No. 3 Bellevue will take on Umpqua at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.


4. Clark (21-6, 13-3 West)
Previous ranking: No. 8, No. 6 Coaches
Coaches: No. 3

Coming in to their second game against Highline, Clark had two statements to make. Firstly, they needed to prove an earlier blowout of the Thunderbirds wasn't a fluke. Secondly, the Penguins needed to show they were, indeed, the best team out of the West. Spoiler alert: They did both. The second meeting wasn't quite as much of a blowout, but Clark did walk away with a fairly dominant 92-81 victory [box] to close the season in a game both teams needed to have. The Penguins ended the year on a league-best six-game winning streak after a rough patch in late January to early February that seemed to have derailed Clark's region title hopes. Not only are the Penguins back on track, (see what I did there) they have one of the best point differentials in the league. They're neck-and-neck with Bellevue and Wenatchee on defense, and yet average over 80 points per contest. As I mentioned before, they just might get a chance to see Bellevue in the second round.

No. 4 Clark tangles with Treasure Valley at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening.


5. Columbia Basin (17-11, 10-4 East)
Previous ranking: No. 2, No. 7 Coaches
Coaches: No. 7

While title-noise definitely can't be made alone, there's definitely something to be said about star power at this tournament. The team lifts the trophy at the end of things, but oftentimes the individual moments shine just as brightly. It seems Columbia Basin sophomore James Lopez might be poised for such a tournament, as he comes in as the league leader in scoring and assists. He's in the top-20 in steals, three-point field goal percentage and overall field goal percentage, and he'll be playing in front of his home town crowd. But enough about Lopez and back to the Hawks, who have come from darkness to claim the second seed from Wenatchee Valley over the final few games. Columbia Basin is third in the league in scoring at 85.6 points per game, but are dead last in defense among teams in the postseason tournament. That might be a problem, Houston.

No. 5 Columbia Basin will play Pierce at noon on Saturday.


6. Highline (21-7, 13-3 West)
Previous ranking: No. 5, No. 2 Coaches
Coaches: No. 5

Highline was rolling until their debacle in the season finale, losing 92-81 [box] to Clark and letting the Western Region's top seed slip out of their grasp in the same breath. And instead of a cushy 6 p.m. game to start things off, Highline moves into the 8 a.m. slot and will play one of the best defensive teams the league has to offer. It's the only ranked game in the first round and a big one for the opponent, who hasn't seen the quarterfinals since 2000. If Highline can shrug off a very — very — early morning and beat the Knights, they've got an odd foursome in Clackamas and Peninsula. Getting steals and easy buckets, at which Highline is relatively adept, could be the difference as games get a little later in the day with each victory.

No. 6 Highline kicks things off against No. 7 Wenatchee Valley at 8 .m. on Saturday morning.


7. Wenatchee Valley (20-9, 9-5 East)
Previous ranking: Unranked, Unranked Coaches
Coaches: Unranked

It's been 15 long seasons since Wenatchee Valley last picked up a win at the NWAC championship tournament. That win came back in 2000, when the Knights made their way to the finals and lost to Spokane in an all-East championship game. They made the tournament again in 2003, but haven't seen the bracket since. This season, behind a slow but efficient game and solid defensive numbers, the Knights have managed to qualify and get a somewhat slighted Highline team in the first round with the Eastern Region's third seed. As mentioned in previous rankings, getting through the first round makes things a little easier with a noon tip-time and a choice between Peninsula (North No. 4) and Clackamas (South No. 1). Though the Knights are ranked and seeded lower, Wenatchee looks like they have a chance at an upset given they're playing relatively close to home and can rely on their defense to push through adversity.

No. 7 Wenatchee Valley will play No. 6 Highline on Saturday morning at 8 a.m.


8. Clackamas (19-10, 11-3 South)
Previous ranking: No. Unranked, No. 8 Coaches
Coaches: No. 6

Remember that comment about backwoods football teams being really good? Clackamas won that backwoods league — somehow. And while I'll admit they were in the running for second behind Chemeketa, there's no way I expected the Cougars to catch Chemeketa and walk into the tournament with the No. 1 seed from the south. Clif Wegner and Clackamas hold the longest consecutive streak of tournament appearances and while I wouldn't put money on the Cougars to roar their way through to the final, they definitely have the potential to unseat a few favorites given how much they've had to get through to be here in the first place.

No. 8 Clackamas will play Peninsula on Saturday morning at 10 a.m.