At first glance, the current Class 3A South Sound Conference boys basketball season is most notable for players who are no longer a part of it.
Defending champion North Thurston lost its all-time leading scorer in Clay Christian, last year’s league MVP in Jeremy Spencer, and seven other seniors.
Timberline, which went on to finish fourth in the 3A state tournament, lost its own all-time scoring leader, Erik Stevenson, to Wichita State, guard Casson Rouse to Eastern Washington, and longtime point guard Eli Morton also graduated.
Peninsula graduated first-team all-league selection Seth Kasteler and second-teamer Elijah McLaughlin. Central Kitsap lost Zion Archer and Dylan McConnell.
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The door seemed open for Capital, which returns first-team picks Chris Penner and Grant Erickson, to make another run at a title.
But, even before the Cougars (5-2) lost a heartbreaking 56-55 home decision to Timberline on the second night of the league season, coach Brian Vandiver was wary.
“It’s going to be a tough league, “ he said. “You can’t take anybody for granted.”
Trailing Capital with 1.8 seconds to play, Timberline won the game on a driving layup by Hunter Campau, barely two weeks off an Olympian All-Area player of the year football season.
“Timberline’s going to be athletic and Allen Thomas is a great coach,” Vandiver said.
The Blazers (7-2) used that dramatic victory to build momentum and seize the 3A SSC lead by a game over Central Kitsap and much-improved Shelton with a 4-0 league mark prior to Wednesday night’s game with last-place Yelm.
With Stevenson, who totaled 1,861 points for the Blazers and now averages just under 10 points per game for the Shockers, Rouse and Morton gone, Timberline has taken a different approach during the early stages of the 2018-19 season.
“Our staple is defense,” Thomas said. “We rely on our defense to create offense. Once these guys really get their chemistry down it will trickle down into our offense. I’m not worried about our offense, but I do want to get a little more up-tempo if we can.”
Although Timberline has had to retool its roster, a plus has been eight of the 11 varsity players being seniors who have waited for the opportunity they are now receiving. Three are averaging in double figures, including Campau (18 points per game), Cole Hicks (11.6) and Ross Jones (10.4).
“It was tough to fill the gaps,” Thomas said. “However, these seniors we have this year made it a little easier. They came into the season with the approach of trying to build their chemistry on and off the court . I owe credit to those guys for being unselfish as we try to continue the legacy of going to state every year.”
Campau, a quarterback in football who also directs the Blazers’ basketball offense as a point guard who averages six assists per game, epitomized that senior group.
“As a senior, I’ve got to take over now. I’ve got to make sure we win the game,” Campau said. “If that means I have to pass the ball, lock up on defense, score — whatever I have to do to win. It’s a lot more leadership this year, holding everyone accountable making sure everyone’s doing their job.”
Thomas has been impressed with Campau’s progress from spare part to mainstay.
“Hunter’s not afraid of the moment. He’s not afraid to fail,” the Blazers’ ninth-year coach said. “He’s waited his turn patiently, from being a role guy off the bench, to just being relied on for shooting, to this year being the floor general — a point guard who’s willing to take some criticism at times, but knows he’s going to have the freedom to play his game when it matters most.”
Meanwhile, Capital’s record is deceptive. Both of the Cougars’ losses came by one point in back-to-back league games against Central Kitsap and Timberline.
With their own football-basketball combo in Penner and Erickson, to pair with outside shooter Lucas Bowser, an Olympia transfer, and 6-foot-8 Brandin Reidel and 6-7 Duncan McDermott — who can also hit from the perimeter — Capital has the personnel to contend.
“We want to go back to the (Tacoma) Dome like we did my sophomore year,” said Penner, who passed the 1,000-point mark in career scoring during an early-season rout of W.F. West. “We missed it by a game last year. It’s about pushing ourselves to another level.”
Vandiver likes his team’s versatility.
“We’re sharing the ball, we’re unselfish. It’s coming together faster than it has in previous years,” he said.
“If they zone us, we can shoot it outside,” Penner added. “If they play man, we’ve got huge size underneath, so we can dominant down there.”
Like Thomas, Vandiver appreciates his seniors.
“Grant and Chris are seasoned veterans. Chris has been a varsity starter since day one, Grant’s been on varsity since his sophomore year. They know what they’re doing,” he said.
“They know the expectations, they bring everybody along. It makes it easier for us as coaches, they’ll take care of some things themselves if something isn’t going right. We want that kind of leadership.”
North Thurston (3-4) has faced a bit more adversity with its large senior class from last year gone.
“Every year you have to make adjustments,” coach Tim Brown said. “Especially if you lose nine guys.”
Much of the responsibility has fallen on the Rams’ 6-4 senior forward Tim Tenkley, who averages 21.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Though Tenkley was overshadowed by Spencer and Christian a year ago, Brown says he meant a lot to the Rams’ 21-4 team.
“I wouldn’t have classified him as a role player,” Brown said. “He averaged 12 points and four rebounds. He always showed up in the big games. This year he has to shoulder a bigger load. He’s got to score, rebound, get his teammates involved.”
Guard Ravi Ath has added offense to the Rams, as a 3-point shooter and by driving to the basket. He averages 17.1 points per game, fueled by 36 percent shooting beyond the arc.
Like Timberline, North Thurston has a group of seniors who waited their turn and are now contributing, including Tariq Osman, Shea Thomas and Will Dixon.
The surprise team has been Shelton, coached by longtime local mentor Derrick Pringle. The Highclimbers (5-1) are led by 6-2 senior Kyler Gall’s 11.8 points per game, and juniors Ty Thompson (10.5 points per game) and Tyler Auld (9.3)
“Timberline’s separated themselves a little already,” Brown said. “But, it’s still a good league. It’s a tough league to get wins out of any night.”