By AARON MANAGHAN
AUBURN — It was understandably difficult for Olympic senior Nicole Buhl to fight back the tears welling in her eyes.
Part of a senior class that helped further the Trojans girls basketball program again this year, Buhl and her Olympic teammates saw their season end one game away from the state tournament for the second consecutive year.
“We wanted to go to state so bad,” Buhl said. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Enumclaw (18-8) topped Olympic (16-8) 45-30 Saturday at Auburn High School in a winner-to-state, loser-out consolation final for the seventh and final seeding out of the West Central District III tournament. And while the loss was hard for each of the Trojans, none was hit harder than Buhl, the team’s leading scorer and Olympic League’s MVP this season.
“It’s just frustrating,” she said, trying to steady her voice. “It’s sad. It just sucks that the season’s over.”
In Saturday’s seventh-place game, both teams opened the game extremely close, with Oly and Enumclaw trading the lead five times en route to an 11-8 Hornets lead at the end of the first quarter. The teams remained close until the Hornets started lighting it up from outside. Back-to-back three-pointers from Jaynae Sayler and Mara Koplitz thrust Enumclaw ahead 24-13 with just less than four minutes before the half, a lead that would grow to a 28-15 halftime advantage.
“Enumclaw, they played so well,” Oly coach Rick Peters said. “They were just the better team today.”
While the Trojans did a better job converting inside shots than they had previously in the tournament, a number of inside misses combined with cold outside shooting made it difficult for Oly to get back into the game in the second half.
“The key, the ball was just not cooperating,” Peters said. “It just was not going in the hole.”
Oly was held to a season low in scoring 30 points, shooting just 14-of-53 on the game. That weighed heavily on the Trojans.
“Our outside shooting wasn’t there,” Peters said. “Our confidence was a little shaken. Offensively, we just went flat in the tournament. But on the flip side of that, we played great defense.”
That was a point best emphasized as the Trojans out-rebounded Enumclaw 42-24 for the game. Most of those were snagged by Buhl, Shawntell Bradford and Pepper Fanua, each of which graduates this year. Buhl finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds while Bradford scored six points to go with 14 boards. Fanua scored six, snagging four rebounds.
“We’re losing some key seniors,” Peters said. “Nicole, Pepper, Shawntell. That’s our inside presence. And Brittany Fry, she’s a spark plug off the bench. We’ve got a lot of offense to replace.”
In the second half, Oly slowed Enumclaw down as both teams scored just eight points each in the third quarter. And while the Trojans made a number of stops in the final two quarters of play, Oly had a hard time converting those opportunities to points, as evidenced by the team’s 22 turnovers.
“No one wants to see the season come to an end,” Peters said. “We would have liked to have played better tonight.”
The Trojans had control of their own destiny in the final rounds. Prior to Saturday’s loss, Oly battled Kelso at Mount Tahoma High School Friday, falling 40-37 in a game that was tight throughout. The loss was similar to Oly’s other losses: Lots of rebounds and missed put-backs. Buhl had 12 points and 14 boards in that game as well. A win in that contest would have locked up a trip to state as either the fourth or sixth seed.
While the Trojans would have liked to return to state, where the program last tread in 1995, Peters said this year’s seniors can draw on helping turn around a program that won seven games their sophomore season but just four games in the three seasons prior. In addition to winning the last two Oly League titles, the Trojans have been 17-3 in league play the last two seasons.
“What we try to gather on is that this group of seniors were back-to-back champions in the Olympic League,” Peters said. “And I think this year we proved we can compete with other teams outside our district.”
The latter was a big step for a program that has faced doubters citing a lack of quality competition on this side of the water. Peters, in his first year at the helm at Olympic, said this year’s did show it could hang with teams from the South Puget Sound League specifically, which houses teams like defending state champions Auburn-Riverside and Kennedy, which drubbed Oly to begin district play.
“I think that opened some eyes,” he said. “I think it’s great. What I saw was some of the fans, whether they were part of AAU or something, talking to our players like, ‘Hey, who are you guys?’”
“It’s cool to know we helped turn it around,” Buhl added.
But what Buhl will remember most about her time spent as a Trojans hoopster will be the moments off the court.
“The fun times with all the girls,” she said. “Our team-building nights, our breakfast trips.”
Now it will be up to Oly’s returners to get step up, Peters said.
“It’s gonna take these juniors and sophomores now to fill their shoes,” he said.
Peters said the loss was a tough way to end his opening season.
“We wanted to finish,” Peters said. “We wanted to go to state.
“But don’t we all?”