High School Sports

Nathan Hale’s basketball team leads the way in ‘juggernaut of state tournament’

Nathan Hale High School’s Michael Porter Jr. (1) is averaging 37 points and 13 rebounds per game, but pressure is squarely on his team to complete an undefeated season with a 3A state title.
Nathan Hale High School’s Michael Porter Jr. (1) is averaging 37 points and 13 rebounds per game, but pressure is squarely on his team to complete an undefeated season with a 3A state title. The Associated Press

The Nathan Hale boys basketball team have been selling out gymnasiums across the country. They’ve returned from out-of-state tournaments as the top-ranked team in America.

Now, they set their sights on their biggest task: The Tacoma Dome, and the 3A state tournament.

Nathan Hale, at 26-0, has put in the work to be considered among the best Washington high school teams ever. But before the Raiders can be mentioned with the elite teams of the past, they’ve got to take care of business this week.

“You can’t really compare them until they’re done with the state tournament,” said O’Dea coach Jason Kerr, whose Fighting Irish team plays in the Metro league with Nathan Hale.

“In order for them to be compared with the top teams of all time they’re going to have to get through this juggernaut of a state tournament and continue their ride and be undefeated. At that point, there’s a conversation to see if they’re in the mix.”

Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea, who led talented Vikings teams to three consecutive 3A state titles from 2012-14 and won another last season, admitted he was partial to his teams when thinking of some of the best in recent years.

“I try to stay away from that comparison thing because, you know me, I’m going to be a little bit biased,” Bethea said after his Vikings squad lost to Nathan Hale 80-71 in a 3A regional game last Saturday. “My team in 2014 — that was a pretty darn good team. I’d rate that team up against anybody. The 2003 Rainier Beach team that was No. 1 in the country — that team was actually bigger than them.

“But it’s one of those things where this is their time right now and they’re a pretty darn good team until somebody says otherwise. They’ve done everything they needed to do, beat all the teams they needed to beat. There’s no disputing how good they are.”

First, there’s McDonald’s All-American Michael Porter Jr. — a 6-foot-9 senior who can play any position on the floor and is regarded as the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Porter averages 37.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game and was just named “Mr. Basketball” by the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association.

Senior point guard Tre’Var Holland and guard P.J. Fuller can run the offense and put up points themselves, as can junior 6-foot-9 post Jontay Porter — Michael’s younger brother.

Along with their first-year coach, former NBA All-Star Brandon Roy, the group has transformed a Nathan Hale team that went 3-18 last season into a power ranked No. 1 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25.

The thought of a potential matchup with the Raiders — who average 86 points per game — is enough to keep a coach awake at night.

“Hale is the favorite going in. They’re a nightmare of a matchup,” said Wilson coach Dave Alwert. “Their size, and athleticism and skill — it’s a matchup nightmare for anybody.”

Kerr isn’t ready to compare the Raiders with other great teams — say, the Garfield teams of the 1970s or the Rainier Beach three-time champions — he does believe Porter has already joined another elite group.

“I think Michael Porter is one of the most talented kids to ever play in the state, if not the best,” Kerr said.

There is hope for Nathan Hale’s challengers at the 3A tournament. Rainier Beach, Garfield and West Seattle have all played close games with the Raiders this season. Rainier Beach led by 11 in their regional game against Nathan Hale with the Vikings’ defense posing some problems for the Raiders.

Kerr believes it’s going to be difficult for teams outside of the Metro League — where the current teams have won 13 of the past 15 3A titles — to top Nathan Hale because they haven’t had the experience of actually going up against Porter and company.

But the O’Dea coach does see one potential advantage for the field.

“(The Raiders) have got an awful lot of pressure on them,” Kerr said, “for three more days to win out and get it done.”

Nathan Hale hasn’t been to the state tournament since 1994 and is looking for the first championship in its program’s history.

“We feel great,” Roy said after the regional win over Rainier Beach. “... We can’t win a championship on Thursday. We can just win one game.

“We’re just happy to finally be (at the Tacoma Dome). It’s my first year coaching so every game, every time is new for me. I’m just trying to take it one game at a time and prepare my guys the best I can.”