I agonized through 32 minutes of basketball on Thursday night at Sammamish High School. It’s not that it was a bad game for Mercer Island — it just wasn’t much of a “game” at all. The Mercer Island boys held the Totems scoreless until 1:30 into the second quarter. The defensive suffocation lent itself to just two offensive rebounds during the entire game for Sammamish. And I finally saw an Islander dunk the basketball during a game without embarrassing himself by missing.
The Islanders won 60-30, but the game was essentially over before it began. The question might remain, “Why would I attend a game between the league champions and the last-place team?” After all, I could have gone and watched Mercer Island beat Newport 62-50 in a more entertaining game. But Sammamish was the last game on the schedule, and the answer is simple: history. Mercer Island completed a league sweep, going 16-0 during regular season games, along with winning the 3A KingCo title.
Now, it’s not out of the norm for a team to “run the table” in league play en route to winning the title. Mercer Island teams have done it many times. The last time the Islanders ran the table was in 2004. But it is not easy.
“It’s pretty tough to do,” said Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple. “I am really happy for them.”
Last season, Issaquah won the KingCo title but went 15-1. Most teams that win the league title finish with one or two losses. According to available records and Pepple, the only time where the Islanders were undefeated in regular-season play and won the state title was in 1985. The Islanders finished with a 28-1 record. The only loss came in an out-of-state tournament.
Mercer Island played some of the best teams in the nation during a tournament in Palm Springs in December. The Islanders lost two games but were in all the games down to the final possessions.
The last time Mercer Island won the state title, it was 15-1 in league play. That season, Mercer Island’s only loss was to Sammamish High School, which was coached by a former Islander player.
Against Sammamish on Friday, the Islanders’ defense was dominating. Mercer Island has played good defense all season.
“[Coach] Paul [Lagerstedt] gets all the credit for the defense,” said Pepple. “A large part of the credit for this season goes to our coaching staff. They’ve done a great job.”
Those coaches, whose names may not be known to the everyday Mercer Island fan, are Brett Ogata, Gavin Cree, Victor Ulloa and Ron Cohn. All four men have been with the team in one way or another for awhile. But the execution on the court goes to the players, most of whom have been on varsity for multiple years. And the players have grown as a team. Two years ago, the Islanders finished with their first non-winning record in the Pepple era. Against Bellevue, the Islander offense played to a scoreless third quarter that year.
Battling through expectations is not easy when your coach has four state titles. This season, the expectations were with Bellevue. Nearly every high school basketball poll had the Wolverines ranked higher than Mercer Island and expectations were for a blue and gold KingCo banner. Bellevue finished with a 12-4 record in KingCo and tied with Issaquah for second.
For Mercer Island, the 16-0 record is a source of pride. But when talking about history, pride and accomplishments this season, all three boys teams for winter sports have to be mentioned. All three teams won KingCo titles this season, which is only the second time in school history (2004). Between the three teams, they posted a combined record of 31-1. The loss came in wrestling at the hands of Interlake. Mercer Island had two key wrestlers injured for the meet and one ineligible.
But with all the accomplishments, it is important to remember that this was just the end of the regular season. Swimming is the odds on favorite to win the state title. The wrestling team walked out of the state tournament this weekend with up to three individual state titles. As for the basketball team, motivation is not a problem. Seniors are 95 percent of the team. They have played together for years with the goal of winning a state title for the high school. No one in the state has beat them yet.