Last fall, Ibi Ceesay played wide receiver on an Olympia High School football team that dresses more players for Friday night games than his actual school has students.
Pope John Paul II, a private school in Lacey, has less than 90 students attending classes on the grounds of a converted firehouse near Saint Martin’s University.
With 21 players making up the varsity and JV teams, nearly half of the boys in the school are part of the basketball program.
Along with Tim Sellars, a lineman for Olympia, Ceesay attends Pope John Paul II but can play football at the public school nearest his home because the school he attends doesn’t field a team. Come basketball season, Ceesay and his Eagles teammates thrive on a tight-knit environment.
“We get to know each other better,” said Ceesay, a 6-foot senior, who leads the Eagles with 16.5 points per game.
“We have better team chemistry, knowing what each other are going to do without even speaking. Just looking and knowing what the other person’s thinking is awesome.”
The Eagles (14-12), who finished at No. 14 in the WIAA RPI rankings, have advanced to the 1B state regionals for the first time in program history.
Saturday, they will play Tulalip Heritage (21-6), the No. 11 seed, at 2 p.m. at Jackson High School in Mill Creek. The winner of the game heads to the Spokane Arena, while the loser goes home.
With the school only 9 years old, the Eagles’ success this season might seem sudden, but it isn’t. Pope John Paul II has had some big moments and graduated a 1,000-point scorer in Hieu Vu last spring.
Vu’s presence gave the program a signature player, but his departure made it mature.
“Hieu was the best player I’ve seen play here, but because he’s gone, people have had to chip in a lot more than they did before. It’s actually made us better,” senior Patrick O’Shell said. “Everyone’s playing better help defense, passing the ball more, taking more reasonable shots, playing overall better team basketball.”
Second-year coach Andy Thielen cites an upgrade in practice facilities — from a two-basket, tile-floored gym at Faith Lutheran Church in Lacey to a six-basket, wood surface at the National Guard Armory in downtown Olympia — as another key to the Eagles improvement.
But he also sees improvements in the transition from relaying on Vu to a balanced group of scorers that includes O’Shell (8.2), Jay Sullivan (7.8), Sellars (7.2), Ryan Kapust (6.1) and John Paul Tefft (5.5) behind Ceesay.
“It was good to notice that late in the playoffs last year, when we knew teams were going to try to shut (Vu) down, the other kids were stepping up and saying, ‘Alright, if they’re going to take Hieu out of the game then somebody else has to step up,’ ” Thielen said.
The Eagles’ style of play has been to rely on strong half-court man defense to turn the ball over and create opportunities on the fast break.
“These guys have worked harder than I ever thought they could work,” Thielen said. “We play a lot of man defense and it’s gotten us to where we are. It’s picked up our offense, it’s lead to transition baskets.”
Pope John Paul II dropped a district playoff game to Tulalip Heritage, 50-44, on the Hawks’ home floor in Marysville, but bounced back to win games over higher seeded Lummi Nation and Mount Rainier Lutheran later in the tournament.
“We have a lot of confidence. We’re peaking going into this,” Thielen said. “I can’t imagine we’re going to have another first half like we did the last time.”
The Eagles turned the ball over 24 times in the game, traveling many times in the first half on a slippery, unfamiliar court.
At Jackson, at a neutral site with momentum behind them and a familiarity with the Hawks’ man defensive scheme, O’Shell and Ceesay are also confident.
“The coaches are doing a great job of bringing this team together,” Ceesay said. “They’ve found ways to create new offenses, find openings to score. They know other teams’ weaknesses and find ways to win.”
With the Eagles run being the most notable team sport success in school history, there’s a lot of excitement on campus. The school’s Facebook page is filled with links to basketball stories and game film. A trip to Spokane would be icing on the cake.
“It would feel pretty awesome,” O’Shell said. “The school hasn’t really been around that long and we’re going to state our senior year. It already has been a special season, but to go to Spokane would really be something.”