Last year was supposed to be special for Rainier Beach
The Vikings entered the season as Washington's defending 3A champs and ranked No. 7 nationally by MaxPreps. Reigning state tournament MVP Marquis Davis was back along with 10 other juniors and seniors who contributed to the title run in 2011-12.
The buzz really picked up in the fall of 2012 when Rainier Beach welcomed in Southern California transfer Shaqquan Aaron
, a 6-foot-8 guard who helped storied Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
win a state title as a freshman.
But the most teenage of issues got in the way of Beach's hopes to make a run at a national title – they just didn't get along.
"That's so important to a team, having kids that like playing with each other," Rainier Beach head coach Mike Bethea said. "And it just wasn't there for us last year."
Six talented seniors – including four playing at the college level this season – moved on from that team, yet the Vikings have taken a huge step forward in 2013-14. No. 2 in the Xcellent 25 national rankings this week, Rainier Beach improved to 16-0 Tuesday night with an 87-55 win over Metro League rival Lakeside (Seattle)
The victory capped a coast-to-coast weekend that included a trip to the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts, where Beach beat red-hot Bishop O'Connell (Arlington, Va.)
65-60 on Saturday. The Vikings returned home for an 83-62 win over O'Dea (Seattle)
at the Martin Luther King-themed Unity in the Community event Monday.
"It was a tough travel trip, but I'm real proud of how they handled it," Bethea said. "We went through Houston on the way back and it was a 9- or 10-hour deal. But those are the things we are going to have to do to show the type of team we really are."
Rainier Beach's opportunities to make a mark nationally are limited by an extensive Metro schedule that includes 15 league games and WIAA rules that limit teams to 20 regular season contests.
But the Vikings made the most of a trip to the Les Schwab Invitational in Oregon last month, outscoring No. 19 Whitney Young (Chicago)
89-82 in the semifinals then blasting Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
95-67 in the championship game.
Bethea isn't receptive to the notion that Beach is a national title pretender due to a schedule perceived as weak outside of the Puget Sound.
"Jackson (4A state title contender) went down to the MaxPreps Holiday Classic and won," Bethea said. "Ask Bishop Gorman and Whitney Young if we can play. Name a time and place and we'll play anybody."
The team's firepower was on display Tuesday night against Lakeside as the first five buckets of the game came on 3-pointers. The Vikings dropped in nine from beyond the arc in the first half and pulled away in the second quarter to take a 50-25 lead into the locker room.
The combination of Aaron (a Louisville signee), Djuan Piper
(6-6, Sr., G/F), Washington commit David Crisp
(6-0, Sr., G), De'Jounte Murray
(6-5, Jr., G) and Naim Ladd
(5-8, Sr., G) is essentially a five-guard lineup that has been a nightmare for opponents. The Vikings are averaging 94.3 points per game and have topped the 100-point mark seven times.
Both Aaron and Crisp are putting up more than 20 points per game, while Murray, Ladd and burly sixth man Elijah Foster
(6-6, 230) are also averaging in double figures.
Piper may be the team's most valuable all-around performer and he averages 9.3 points per game.
"Teams usually can't match up with us," said Piper, a who has seen his recruitment spike recently with Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Illinois State, Minnesota, Richmond, Texas A&M, USC, Washington and Washington State in the picture.
"When we are clicking, we are probably the toughest matchup in the nation because we have five guys on the court that can put up 20-plus points," said Bethea, who has coached Beach to six of the school's seven boys basketball state titles.
Best of all for the veteran head coach – these guys really like each other.
"There are no cliques or anything like that so that's what I'm really digging about this team," Bethea said.
Ironically, the Vikings are looking up in the rankings at Aaron's former school, Mater Dei. He has no regrets about his decision to move north.
"I feel like it was a great move," Aaron said. "Look where I'm at now. Second in the nation. I feel like we should be the No. 1 team in the nation and we are just going to keep winning and keep proving people wrong. I'm from Los Angeles but now I'm up here repping Seattle and we want to prove we are No. 1."
A lethal 3-point shooter who excels at creating opportunities for teammates with his drive-and-kick game (he recorded a triple-double against Lakeside), Aaron would welcome a made-for-TV showdown with his former teammates.
"I want to have a chance to play against them for a national title," Aaron said. "If I could do that, that would be like playing in the NCAA championship."
Rainier Beach has been a pipeline to college and professional basketball, producing stars like Doug Christie, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, twins Lodrick and Rodrick Stewart and Terrence Williams.
The Vikings have been ranked No. 1 nationally before but a national title has escaped the perennial powerhouse. In fact, no team from Washington has ever been recognized as high school basketball's mythical national champ, a piece of history this Rainier Beach team would like to change.