Swept, sweep, split: Up-and-down week for EJ boys’ hoops

By Brian MacKenzie and Gary Zambor
Posted 1/31/24



The East Jefferson’s boys’ basketball team rebounded from a tough loss to Cascade Christian by beating Seattle Christian a week ago Tuesday, but then fell to …

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Swept, sweep, split: Up-and-down week for EJ boys’ hoops




The East Jefferson’s boys’ basketball team rebounded from a tough loss to Cascade Christian by beating Seattle Christian a week ago Tuesday, but then fell to Klahowya two days later. Those games brought the Rivals to 5-5, tied with Klahowya for fifth place in the nine-team Nisqually League.

Before the Cascade Christian contest, icy roads kept the Rivals out of game action for two weeks. While Nisqually League athletic directors scrambled to reschedule snowed-out conference games, EJ kept practicing and tried to stay sharp.

“These young athletes have continued to be resilient and have shown incredible dedication to make state,” said Head Coach Emmanuel Abbott. “While the weather has halted us on the court, that won't break our stride in winning."

But winning against Cascade Christian proved difficult. On Dec. 7, the Cougars brutally defeated the Rivals in Chimacum, 63-39. The Jan. 19 rematch took place in hostile territory, on Cascade Christian’s raucous court in Puyallup. Moreover, during the two weeks weather idled EJ, the Cougars played four games and won them all, rising to 8-2 and securing second place in the Nisqually League.

The rusty Rivals had to face Cascade Christian without the services of star center Stuart Dow, a senior who had to miss the game due to a prior commitment. Fellow senior Keidan Guzman, normally a shooting guard, shifted to center in Dow’s stead. The six-foot-seven Guzman stepped up to post a team-high 12 points, six rebounds, four assists, and four blocks.

Junior guard Traycen Brown also scored 12 points. Senior Aidan Stepanski, sidelined by a foot injury for most of the season, returned to contribute another 11 points.

Despite those individual efforts, the Cougars leapt to an early lead. “Defensively our first half was the worst,” said Stepanski. “In the second half we switched to man-on-man defense, and that held [Cascade Christian] back.”

With that adjustment, the Rivals limited Cascade Christian to 26 points in the second half, and improved scoring narrowed the deficit. But the Cougars dug in their claws and never relinquished the lead. Cascade Christian prevailed, 81-59, to complete a season sweep of EJ.

The Rivals traveled to the Emerald City on Jan. 23 for a road rematch with Seattle Christian. 

Having beaten the Warriors in Port Townsend on Dec. 12, EJ players felt confident, but refused to take Seattle Christian lightly. Senior point guard and team captain Brody Moore said, "We're going to play just like any other game and just as hard. They can shoot the ball, so we've got to stay on our toes and have quick and fast closeouts."

That vigilance proved wise, because the Warriors fought hard to defend their home court, while the Rivals struggled to find the hoop. "We like to shoot, and frankly shooting keeps us in games,” Moore said, “so when we're off we have to find different ways to facilitate and score."

As point guard, Moore helped the team move the ball and get it to the guys who had the hot hand that night. After Seattle Christian seized an 11-10 first quarter lead, EJ battled back and finished the half with a 25-23 advantage. The Warriors rallied and led 38-37 by the end of the third quarter. 

The game continued to seesaw until late in the fourth quarter, when the oft-fouled Moore silenced the Seattle crowd with several clutch free throws that enabled the Rivals to seal a narrow 52-49 win. EJ’s victory completed a season sweep of Seattle Christian.

"It was a shootout,” said Coach Abbott. “Both teams kept steady all game. It was simply back and forth. We continued to shine on defense. Once we figure out our offense, it's going to be scary for all of Nisqually."

Moore led the Rivals in scoring with 15 points. Stepanski pitched in another 12 and grabbed seven rebounds. Guzman scored 10 and led the team in rebounds (11) and assists (five). The six-foot-eight Dow returned at center and dominated defensively, snagging seven rebounds and blocking 10 shots. 

Having swept Seattle Christian, EJ hoped to repeat the feat against their nearest Nisqually League nemesis, Klahowya Secondary School. By defeating the Eagles in Klahowya on Dec. 1, the Rivals created an opportunity to complete a season sweep at home in Port Townsend on Jan. 25.

"This game is marked on our calendar for sure,” said senior Tyler Morrell. “The atmosphere is … like no other,” and given the "palpable tension lingering between both teams,” Morrell predicted “it should be a good one!"

It was a good one, for Klahowya: The Eagles swooped in and routed the Rivals, 59-42, in a heated bout that junior guard Ethan Riker said “left fans upset and players disheartened.”

“We came out slow and lazy, and it was tough,” said guard Traycen Brown, also a junior.

"Energy wins games,” said Stepanski. “The way we carry ourselves on the court is crucial."

The defeat meant the Rivals split their season series with Klahowya, with each team losing at home.

Rescheduling two weeks of snowed-out games forced the Rivals to play three opponents in four days last week, and will compel them to play four teams in five days this week.

“We just have to work hard and stay locked in,” said junior guard John Mercado. “We practice how we play, and you can tell the impact it has.”