The Panthers ended another spectacular year of girls basketball as one of the top 12 teams in the state.
The young team has much to be proud of after three consecutive trips to the 2A Girls Hardwood Classic in Yakima. However, losing 55-46 in the first round, to the Lynden Lions, was a difficult experience for players, coaches and the team’s loyal fans, who brought a small sea of orange and black to the Sundome on Wednesday, Feb. 28.
“We wanted to win so badly, it’s just so hard right now, but I know it will be different next year,” Washougal junior Beyonce Bea, this year’s league MVP, said, fighting back tears after the game.
The Washougal girls had a tougher road to Yakima than expected this season after clinching the league championship — itself an impressive feat, considering that two of last year’s starters transferred to Union High and the Panthers’ head coach, Britney Knotts, was leading the team for the first time.
The Panthers fell into a challenging position after an unexpected first-round loss to Columbia River in the district tournament. With their backs up against the wall, the Panthers had to win three straight games to punch a return ticket to the state tournament. They won all three of those playoff games by wide margins.
“Our team has been resilient all year,” Knotts said. “Sometimes nerves and inexperience did get to us, but these girls have a knack for playing hard and then regaining their chemistry.”
At state, the Panthers started out hot in their first-round matchup against Lynden, going up by five points in the first quarter. The Washougal band and cheerleaders helped stoke a loyal crowd of Panther fans, who proudly rooted for their team.
But, things changed in the second quarter. The Lynden Lions, who won last year’s championship, came out sharp on defense, forcing Panther turnovers.
“There were so many turnovers and it’s because Lynden was playing as a team and we fell off our game,” forward Tiana Barnett, a Washougal junior, said.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time the Washougal team had encountered second-quarter struggles.
“Our second quarters have been letting us down lately,” Knotts said. “At district, we could overcome those letdowns. But, unfortunately, when you get here to state, that’s all it takes to get behind and then it’s too hard to fight your way back.”
Once Washougal fell behind in the second quarter, the Lions would not allow the Panthers to retake the lead. Washougal played really hard and stayed close, but it just wasn’t enough, Knotts noted.
“Lynden is a really great program, so it’s a really good team for us to size up and see because this is what it takes to get to the championship,” she said.
The Panther-Lions match-up was the last game for Washougal seniors Alexis Maniscalco, Emilee Smart, Grace Graham and Maggie Hungerford — who all played on some of the best teams in the history of the program.
“As fans, we appreciate everything these girls have done, they are so good and I just know this team is going to eventually win a trophy,” said 81-year-old Forrest Seagraves, who was among a large group of fans decked out in orange and black, who had traveled to Yakima to cheer on a team that has brought the community together with their impressive winning streak.
As tough as losing in the first round may have been, the team’s future has never looked brighter: Most of these talented young players will return next season. That includes the 6-foot-tall Beyonce Bea, who has a remarkable ability to play center and point guard, and her talented 5-foot-9 freshman sister, Skylar Bea. The sisters also will play with two of their hoop-loving cousins next season.
“My nieces will be freshmen and we are looking forward to what they can contribute to this team,” said Brad Bea, Beyonce’s and Skylar’s father. “There is so much upside to what’s going to happen in Washougal basketball.”
The one thing that helped Beyonce fight tears after the loss at state was knowing that this team has an opportunity to put together an even better season moving forward.
“Skylar and I have played together with our cousins in club ball since we were all very young, plus we have so many great talented and experienced players coming back, our goal is to return to the dome and win the whole thing,” Beyonce said.
“Most of our team is coming back and we are going to bring it, but we’ve got to seriously work on some stuff,” Barnett added.
Coach Knotts agreed, and said she believes her team will only get better after experiencing this painful first round loss at the state tournament.
“I’m so proud of this team, but now we know how intense we have to play to win at state,” Knotts said. “So, next season we’ve got to bring it, every single day in practice.”