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Protecting the tradition
Seniors look to put Islander basketball back on top, return to state playoffs
By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter
The past four years have been a bumpy ride for Islander boys basketball fans. Two years ago, the team suffered its first losing season in coach Ed Pepple’s tenure at Mercer Island High School. But the core group of athletes on those teams are now seniors. Last year they took a big step forward, posting a 13-3 regular season record and earning a trip to the district tournament. But districts has not been the goal for Mercer Island basketball during Pepple’s 40 years on the bench. This year the team is aiming for a KingCo title and a state playoff birth.
“Normally you don’t want to have 11 seniors because of what will happen during the next season,” said Pepple. “But this group is special. They all have differing abilities, and we want to be able to utilize that in the best possible light.”
The Islanders have two of the best players in KingCo with Leroy Lutu and Matt Schut. But the senior duo admit they will need help this season for the team to achieve their goals.
“We are a good one-two punch,” said Schut. “We are strong with the ball, but we have to share it and get our teammates more involved.”
Lutu and Schut have played three seasons together on varsity and last year both players were selected all-league.
“They are coming off a great year individually,” said Pepple. “They are the focal point for us, and they will get their shots but have to get better passing the ball and sharing the ball.”
Learning to share and take good shots, not just open shots, is something that the Islanders have struggled with in recent years.
One player who has a lot of potential, according to Pepple, is Drew Sexton.
“He is capable of putting up 15 to 20 points a game,” said Pepple.
The other seniors who know the challenge of 3A KingCo are Jack Gala, Sam Rasmussen, Paul Morse, Evan Zahniser and Rahul Misra.
One big strength of the team will be its defense. With players like Gala, who played offensive line for the Islander football team, Mercer Island will not get pushed around.
“He is our John Brockman,” said Pepple, comparing his senior to the University of Washington’s big forward. “He can score and hold down the key. He has worked really hard to improve.”
But even with Gala’s size, the Islanders will be out-matched in height by their rivals for the KingCo title.
“There is some tough competition, and we will have to play an up-tempo game,” said Pepple. “If we can run the court, we can negate their size. We have a lot of guys who can score, which will be a big asset.”
One of the teams that will stand in the way of Mercer Island’s goals is its rival, Bellevue. The games between the Wolverines and Islanders are always heated but with both teams having a legitimate shot at the KingCo title, the games will be mass hysteria.
“It is tough to beat them and Bellevue got some good transfers,” said Schut. “We will have to have 100 percent intensity and play flawless defense.”
Issaquah and Newport could have a chance to surprise the top-two teams as they came from nowhere last year to change the race for the league title.
But the experience factor for the Islanders is huge. They don’t have a transfer student to learn a new system or the league. They don’t have sophomores or freshmen to get acclimated to the varsity lifestyle. What they do have is 11 seniors looking to make their mark and return to the tradition that is Mercer Island High School basketball in the state playoff race.