Eastside Catholic, Federal Way and Issaquah are the teams that have ended Timberline High School’s postseason run the past three years.
All in the same round, all on the same weekend at the end of February.
No player on Timberline’s roster has made it to the Tacoma Dome — until now.
“I couldn’t ask for a better season,” Timberline senior guard Tariq Romain said. “Freshman year, didn’t make it. Sophomore and junior years, didn’t make it. Senior year, made it.”
For the first time in Romain’s high school career, the Blazers won’t make an early exit in the state regionals.
In the WIAA’s RPI rankings, which were rolled out this season to determine state tournament seeding, Timberline (18-6) is the sixth-ranked boys team in Class 3A.
The top eight teams in each classification are safe from elimination this weekend. Each is guaranteed at least one game at a championship site and can notch a first-round bye with a regional win.
Timberline coach Allen Thomas was skeptical of the system before the season started. He thought it had the potential to protect Metro League teams from meeting early on in the tournament.
But, as it turned out, Timberline played a tough enough non-league schedule — including against Capital, the fourth-ranked RPI team in 3A out of the 3A South Sound Conference — to earn its own safety net.
“Looking back, I didn’t realize how well our schedule actually ended up working itself out,” Thomas said. “That is the biggest crap shoot in this whole thing.
“You can go out and schedule who you think is going to win, but they they still have to go out there and win.”
As it turned out, the Blazers’ opponents did. Of the 13 teams Timberline played during the regular season, 11 finished with a .500 record or better.
Seven of those teams — Mark Morris (sixth in RPI, Class 2A); Tumwater (seventh, 2A); Foss (20th, 2A); Capital (fourth, 3A); Cleveland (13th, 3A); Wilson (17th, 3A); Emerald Ridge (18th, 4A) — ended the regular season rated in the top 20 in their classifications.
“When I saw our strength of schedule was higher than some of the Metro League teams, I (thought) we might actually have a shot,” Thomas said.
Thomas realized it was a reality as Timberline continued to hold steady in the top eight the final two weeks of the regular season.
When the Blazers played Central Kitsap for the first time in January, with nine regular season games remaining, he explained the situation to his team.
“That’s when I first mentioned the reality of us being in the top eight, and how important these games are,” Thomas said. “Just so they understand what they’re fighting for, and what they’re playing for.”
By the end of those nine games, all Timberline had to do was finish in the top five in the 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict tournament to solidify a trip to the Tacoma Dome.
The Blazers easily topped Stadium before meeting Prairie in a winner-to-state game on Feb. 10.
“The week leading up to Prairie, I said, ‘If we win this game, we are in the Dome,’ ” Thomas said. “I could see a lot of people’s faces lit up.”
“That was our regional game,” Bush said.
And for the first time in four years, Timberline wasn’t randomly matched against a team that eventually went on to place in the state tournament.
Issaquah took sixth at state in Class 4A last season, Federal Way won the 4A title in 2015 and Eastside Catholic lost to Rainier Beach in the Class 3A championship game in 2014.
Timberline worked to a decisive 80-66 win against Prairie without fear of elimination.
“It felt so good,” Romain said. “As soon as the clock hit zero, I said, ‘Thank God.’ Best win ever.”
The Blazers nearly ended Lincoln’s undefeated streak in the district semifinals and eventually beat out Spanaway Lake for third place.
“After we beat Prairie, a weight kind of got off my shoulders,” said Timberline junior guard Erik Stevenson, who leads the Blazers averaging 20 points per game.
“I knew (we were) going to the Dome, but that still didn’t stop me and our team from practicing hard and playing hard.”
Thomas says that has to continue this weekend as Timberline plays West Seattle (19-6) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bellevue College with a first-round bye on the line.
With a win, Timberline could avoid the nation’s top-ranked high school team, Nathan Hale (25-0), until the title game.
“We know the road at the Dome if we don’t win the game is a lot harder than actually winning the game,” Thomas said.
Since the season began, Thomas has believed Timberline can contend with Metro League teams. But the Blazers need to remain “locked in” throughout the state playoffs to do that.
“Everybody is coming to win,” Thomas said.