Edmonds raced to a 9-1 record, then endured a tough stretch at the start of North Region play. Through six regional contests, the Tritons found themselves 2-4, with back-to-back losses on their home floor. But the Tritons fought through the adversity, notching grind-it-out wins to get back in the postseason.
Sixth-year head coach Kyle Gray reflected on the tough early start.
“We stuck together,” Gray said. “When things didn’t go our way these guys used their mental training. We had a great outlook even in the tough times. No one felt like we couldn’t get it done.”
And get it done they did – Edmonds was 6-2 over its last eight games, including four straight road triumphs.
Much of the team’s success falls on the shoulders of soft-spoken, lead-by-example sophomore Zach Walton. After a redshirt season last year due to injury, Walton has come back to full strength.
Walton, the North freshman of the year in 2016, earned NWAC Player of the Week honors twice this year, and is one of the top scorers (20.7 ppg, seventh overall) and rebounders (9.3 rpg, sixth overall) in the conference. Although he has a humble nature, he plays with an inner fire that resonates throughout the entire group.
Walton and a strong supporting cast of sophomores has been the difference in lifting the Tritons to the postseason for the fifth time in the past six years.
“Some guys really stepped up,” Gray said. “Rotash (Mattu) has been big for us on the defensive end. His consistency has really helped us dial in the game plan.”
Point guard Raven Frazier has filled the role of vocal leader and floor general.
“I think he’s the most underrated player in the North. He brings it every day, every practice,” Gray said. “He’s everything we’ve asked and more.”
Frazier’s improved perimeter game has kept defenses honest and he’s also the Tritons distributor, dishing out 4.6 assists per game.
Looking inside the first-round matchup, Edmonds is third in the NWAC in scoring, averaging 91 points per game, and is connecting on 46 percent of its shots. The Tritons are balanced offensively with Loren LaCasse (11.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), and Jake Higgins (14.8 ppg) also averaging double digits. Higgins is a three-point specialist who is tough to stop when he’s hot. Tyler Morris provides a spark off the bench is and averaging 10 points per game.
In talking about Higgins and Morris, Coach Gray said, “Their shooting has been great, but they’ve learned to play with each other. Tyler has found his role and he has flourished.”
Another key cog for Edmonds is Devin Price who has battled injury but has contributed 7.6 ppg, and 5.1 rpg.
Linn-Benton is scoring nearly 87 points per game, and shoots 44 percent from the field this year. The Roadrunners are also balanced with Bailey Evans (13.8 ppg), Cooper Getsfrid (13.1 ppg), and Taylor Jensen (12.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) leading the attack. The seventh-ranked Roadrunners have the seventh-most free-throw attempts in the NWAC and are third overall in free-throw percentage. Trent Van Cleave averages four assists per contest.
“They are a sound team and we need to be ready for a physical game,” Gray said. “We must take care of the basketball and play honest defense. We’ve got to share the basketball and spread it around.”
Edmonds sophomores Raven Frazier (Spanaway, Wash.) and Zach Walton (Morton, Wash.) received all-region recognition. Frazier was selected to the North All-Defensive Team and Walton collected his second North first-team award.
The Tritons have nine sophomores on the roster and they’ve all helped make it a special season.
“This team has been a pleasure to be around every day. They are just a fun group,” Gray said. “It has really been the difference for us. They’re very close.”
Triton men’s basketball won its only NWAC championship in 1985 under NWAC Hall of Fame coach Keith Kingsbury. In the Coach Gray era the Tritons have two North Region titles (2013, 2015) and have placed at the NWAC Championships three times. In 2013 and 2015 they lost in the championship game; in 2014 they placed sixth.
The format of the 16-team NWAC Championship Tournament is single elimination. The winner of Edmonds and Linn-Benton will play the Walla Walla-Centralia winner at 4 p.m. on Sunday. The final four will take place next weekend at Everett CC on Saturday and Sunday, March 17 and 18. Single day general admission tickets are $17 for adults, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for ages 7-12, and free for kids under six years old. If you can’t make it in person, watch all NWAC Tournament games on the NWAC Sports Network.