Wednesday's practice was supposed to serve as a rally and community send-off for Rainier Beach
as it prepares for next week's Dick's Sporting Goods High School National Tournament in New York City.
Media, fans and prominent members of the Seattle community were invited to join the team, take pictures, conduct interviews and share in the success of the nation's No. 3-ranked high school basketball team.
But not everybody is thrilled about Rainier Beach's success. A rival coach or coaches complained about the out-of-season function and the school scrapped the event.
With the rest of the state's teams already looking forward to 2013-14, Jamal Crawford Court had a bit of a lonely feeling as Washington's three-time defending champions warmed up for practice. Just 11 players, a handful of coaches and a few visiting college coaches in the school's well-worn gymnasium.
That's a far cry from the stage Rainier Beach will be on next week in New York City. The finals of the eight-team tourney will be held at Madison Square Garden with every game being broadcast across the ESPN family of networks. There are plans to visit the Statue of Liberty and other sites in the Big Apple.
The Vikings are ready.
"I've never been there in my life," Louisville-bound senior star Shaqquan Aaron
said. "Coach (Mike) Bethea told us not to look up at the tall buildings like we are in awe and make sure our pockets are zipped up so that nobody steals anything. Stuff like that."
And yes, Rainier Beach is also ready for Thursday's opener against No. 15 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.)
. Even though the Seattle superpower is ranked No. 3 nationally and unbeaten (29-0) on the season, the underdog mentality is creeping back into their systems.
Rainier Beach is the only public school in the field and doesn't feature the same type of Top 100 starpower some of its counterparts in NYC do.
"We were looking at the website (dicksnationaltournament.com) and under players to watch for some teams they had basically every player listed," Aaron said. "For us, I was the only one listed. Guys on the team were looking at me like, 'That's not right.' I told them to go out and make a name for themselves and show everybody who you really are."
That approach may serve them well. Beach entered December's Les Schwab Invitational in Oregon as a bit of an afterthought behind headliners Whitney Young (Chicago)
and Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas)
. Washington Husky pledge David Crisp
had his coming out party in the prestigious tourney as the Vikings hung 89 points on Whitney Young in the semifinals and beat Gorman by 28 in the championship.
Don't expect Rainier Beach to deviate from its pressure and push approach.
"We can't adjust the way we play because then we are playing into their hands," said Bethea, who has led the program to seven state titles. "We have to play our brand of basketball, get up and down and hope we are hitting that day."
Late in the season as the hunted, Bellevue
, Eastside Catholic (Sammamish)
and Mercer Island
all had Beach on the ropes in the fourth quarter. Keeping an unbeaten season intact and earning a spot at Dick's Nationals made every game a pressure cooker.
"It was hard to block it out," senior wing Djaun Piper
Those were the only real scares all year against in-state teams. Regardless of what happens next week in NYC, the Vikings – who piled up single-game point totals of 118, 117, 115, 113 and 109 – will go down as one of the most dominant teams ever in Washington.
In addition to seniors Aaron (19 points per game) and Crisp (18.8), Piper (10.1) is a major 2014 talent with Gonzaga, Minnesota, South Carolina and Washington all battling to land a late steal. The 6-foot-6 wing can defend every position at the high school level and is one of the top unsigned and uncommitted seniors in the country.De'Jounte Murray
(14.4) is a Top 100 junior who should see his stock rise even higher over the summer when analysts and scouts get a better look at the 6-5 (and still growing) guard.
Unheralded 6-6, 230-pound senior Elijah Foster
(9.9 points per game) emerged to take state tournament MVP honors while Naim Ladd
(10.5), Tyrone Cooke
and Shadeed Shabazz
are all valuable, experienced role players.Dick's Nationals quarterfinal scheduleThursday, April 3 at Christ the King High School (Middle Village, N.Y.)
Noon (EST) – No. 7 La Lumiere (Ind.)
vs. No. 12 Huntington St. Joseph Prep (W.Va.)
2 p.m. – No. 5 Northside Christian Academy (N.C.)
vs. No. 10 Oak Hill Academy (Va.)
4 p.m. – No. 3 Rainier Beach vs. No. 15 Findlay Prep
6 p.m. – No. 2 Montverde Academy (Fla.)
vs. No. 4 Sagemont (Fla.)All quarterfinal games televised on ESPNU.