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Deer Park boys, girls basketball find similar situations entering district tournament play

It’s ironic.

Here we are in a week that includes Valentine’s Day, and yet there has never been a better time to, well, Go Stag.

Deer Park’s boys and girls basketball teams are in the same situation for Friday’s Valentine’s Day semifinal games at the District 7 1A tournament at West Valley High School. Both teams are the No. 2 seed from the Northeast A League behind top-seeded Freeman, and both are ranked No. 13 in the latest RPI ranking published by the WIAA.

For the boys, the trick will be to find a way back to the state tournament for the second straight season.

For the girls, it will be to find a way there for the first time since the 1989-90 season and the second time in school history.

“I went back and looked and the last time Deer Park had a winning record in a season was the early 2000s,” coach KC Ahrens said. “But at the same time, I was just going back over the past two years, and I just realized that we haven’t lost two games in a row yet.

“Having a winning team last year was a really big deal for our kids.”

Deer Park graduated just one player from last year’s team that finished a game away from the state tournament.

“We were the sacrificial lambs who had to play Hailey Van Lith and Cashmere in that game,” Ahrens said. “We held her to 26 points, and we were jumping up and down at that.

“This year we don’t have to play that game. We have our two teams coming out of districts, and we’ll be seeded according to the RPI.”

The Deer Park girls play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at West Valley. The winner advances to the district title game and, barring a major upset, a rematch with the Scotties, who swept the regular season series, on Wednesday. The loser of that game faces off against the winner of a loser-out game between the losers of Friday’s games for the final berth into the regional tournament.

Chad Hand’s boys squad was knocked out of the State 1A tournament after losing its one-and-done first-round game with King’s, 77-40, ending an exceptional 20-4 season.

“Last year we didn’t have a whole lot of diversity in the loss department,” he explained. “When we got to the playoffs, we faced La Center and teams that were at a higher level, and that was a struggle for those kids. Those teams were throwing haymakers at us, and we had to figure out how to compete and win a game when we are not the better team, especially when it comes to having length. I hope this time we’re better prepared to handle that.”

Coming off last season’s success, the Stags have had to adjust to a new lineup that does not include Isaac Berglund or most of that squad’s height.

“This year we were pretty emotional after a couple of our losses,” Hand said. “We just weren’t used to losing games like that after last year.

“But I think in the last two weeks we’ve started to learn from those losses and use them to try to get better.”

Hand pointed to Deer Park’s losses to Colville, Newport, Lakeside and Freeman and noted the disparity in height.

“Those are all teams that we split with this year,” he said. “Those are all tough match-ups for us. We’re still trying to figure out how to compete against teams like that.”

Hand is hopeful after the way the Stags finished last week. After a tough three-point loss to Lakeside, the team bounced back to take a 68-39 win over Medical Lake one night later.

“That makes me very hopeful,” Hand said. “Medical Lake is a very good team that led our league for almost the entire season. For our guys to put that Lakeside loss behind them and go out and play Medical Lake like that showed me a lot.”

Turning the page after a loss and moving on to the next challenge has been something the Deer Park girls have been able to do in each of Ahrens’ two seasons as coach.

“They’re teaching us that as coaches,” he said. “We just have guys coaching the girls program here – I would love it if we had a woman coach to kind of help teach the guys. But after a loss the girls are on the bus and they’re laughing and enjoying themselves and looking forward to their next game. The coaches are a little more down and need some time to get over it.”

Hand credits a change in the approach some of his players have taken to summer basketball for the growth of the program.

“Isaac kind of started it,” Hand explained. “He went down and tried out for an AAU team in Spokane and he got cut. They told him he wasn’t good enough to play on that team, so he came back and wanted to know what he could do to make himself better. If he had just stayed in Deer Park and tried out for the AAU team here, he would never have been cut.

“Instead, he made himself a better player. Now we have other kids doing the same thing. There is a bigger basketball world out there, and we have to go explore it, too.”

Ahrens’ challenge is to get more of the school’s athletes to play basketball.

“Our challenge right now is soccer,” he said. “We have soccer coaches who don’t like to share kids. If you miss a practice, even if you’re on another team, you don’t play for them.

“We’re a Class 1A school and in five years we’ll probably be a Class 2A school. At our size, we have to share kids between sports. If a kid is really good at one sport and plays another where he or she struggles a little, they learn from that. It makes them a better player and a better person.”