Once the Selah High boys basketball team fell behind by 21 points to Lynden early in the second half of the Class 2A state championship game March 2, it would have been easy for the Vikings to be satisfied with merely getting that far.
But that’s just not how these boys roll.
Senior captain Elijah Pepper scored all but four of his game-high 20 points in the second half, leading a spirited comeback at the SunDome that brought the Viks to within five points with six minutes remaining.
Sophomore Noah Pepper also did his part down the stretch, hitting some key shots and playing stout defense to keep the high-powered Lynden offense from reclaiming the momentum.
But in the end, the defending champion Lions were simply too much, sending the Vikings to their second runner-up finish in the past three years by a score of 60-51.
“They just had a little more juice than us, I guess,” Selah head coach Tim Garza said. “We knew going in that Lynden was a deep, veteran team that was well-coached and very disciplined. But at halftime, I challenged the boys to keep playing hard until the end, and they really responded.”
The older Pepper — a four-year starter who missed 15 games with a knee injury — added eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks before fouling out with four minutes remaining.
Noah Pepper, the CWAC Player of the Year, finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, playing all 32 minutes. Seniors Calvin Herting (nine points, two assists) and Will Middlebrooks (three points, six rebounds) also played from wire-to-wire, giving the Vikings stability and leadership against a stacked Lynden lineup.
Garza said he couldn’t be more proud of his team’s perseverance in the face of adversity.
“There are a lot of teams that would have been content just to reach the championship game, but being the competitors that they are, our guys knew they could put together one more run,” he said. “They did, but we came up just a little short.”
Selah finished the year 20-5 and claimed the CWAC district championship.
This season started off a bit rocky for the Vikings due to a slew of injuries, including Elijah Pepper’s strained meniscus that kept him out of action for the first 15 games.
Two other projected starters, Reed Rasmussen and Malachi Kinlow, also suffered season-ending injuries, leaving Garza with only two players — Noah Pepper and Herting — who had played significant varsity minutes.
“With three potential starters out, I looked down the bench and realized we were pretty young,” said Garza, who also lost Middlebrooks for five games midseason due to injury. “We didn’t know how long Eli was going to be out, so we knew we would have to adjust.
“But this season was all about the journey. We put it all together at the right time and got to the championship game. It’s heartbreaking for the kids to get that far and not win state, but I told them to keep their heads up. They have a lot to be proud of.”
Aside from the consistent play of his four team leaders, Garza also spoke highly about the contributions the team got from seniors Skyler Rayburn and Dylan Giles, and underclassmen Shad Smith, Cooper Quigley, Matthew Quincy.
Next season, Garza will be relying on that group and Noah Pepper to shepherd along a group of JV players who are also showing great promise. That comes back to the tradition that this year’s seniors helped create.
“I told Eli and Calvin that, because of them, we are expected to do well every year now,” Garza said. “And all these young guys who have been watching them the past few years want to carry on that tradition. Our recent success has really rubbed off on the entire program.”
The Next Level
Looking ahead to next year, Elijah Pepper will be suiting up for the University of California-Davis, which offered him a full-ride scholarship.
Garza can’t say enough about the four-year starter and team leader.
“They’re getting a good one,” the coach said, referring to the UC-Davis program. “He’s only going to get better and we’re expecting him to do a lot of great things there.”
Not to be overshadowed, Herting also played four years on the varsity squad and became known around the state for his long-range shooting proficiency.
Garza said Herting’s future plans haven’t been confirmed, but he’s talking to at least one four-year school about playing next year.
“We call him ‘The Sniper’ because you can’t leave him open from the outside,” the coach said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best 3-point shooter in the state. He’s also a great kid, and I’m sure he’ll do great wherever he ends up.”