YAKIMA — “The Dome is where the champions play,” said senior Sawyer Jenks, following No. 9 Royal’s victory at the regional play-in game to return to the 1A Hardwood Classic for the second consecutive season to chase the dream on Wednesday at the Yakima SunDome.
Interestingly enough, the first team they’ll see when they hit the Hardwood Classic for just the second time since 2001 is a team they’ve already seen twice this year — No. 8 Connell (19-5).
“Going back to the Dome again is not just about us as a team. We’re starting to build a program here in Royal,” Jenks said. “Going back back-to-back shows we’re on the uphill climb.
“Coach (Ray) Valle has been teaching us better technique and better fundamentals. He definitely motivates us to believe in ourselves, and that’s been the message since he started last year.”
Owen Ellis surpassed the 1,500 career point mark earlier in the season. He is one of seven seniors going to ride out their high school careers in the Dome. “Going back-to-back says how hard-working we are and just how much we want it,” Ellis said. “For me personally, I’ll never play high school basketball again, so this means a lot. Ever since last year, this has been the goal to get back and go for it again.”
The Knights (19-5) have won 15 of their last 16 games with the only loss coming to Zillah at the district tournament. The Leopards also ended Connell’s eight-game winning streak at districts. The Eagles have since lost two in a row going into its third meeting with Royal.
The two split during the regular season with both holding down the homecourt. None of that much matters now. The winner of the third meeting will advance to the bracket to face No. 2 La Center (22-2), which comes into the tournament on a nine-game winning streak.
“It’s always fun to play (in the Dome) no matter who it is. But with it being Connell, it brings a better level of competition,” Ellis said. “As long as we score one more than them, I’m happy. If that means a big game by me or Sawyer, whatever it takes.
“We have to slow down Silas Chase and Austin Smith. If we can control them and do our thing on offense, I think we’ll be good.”
Defense is the ticket to the next round Jenks said, “They have the two really good shooters in Chase and Smith,” the 6-foot-4 senior said. “I think man defense is our strength. If we can put pressure on them up top and start fast, we’ll be fine.”
Despite having played on the big stage quite a big in other sports, the Knights are relatively inexperienced at the state level in basketball. Second-year coach Ray Valle and his staff is changing that culture.
Last year, they won their first SCAC East championship since 1975 and became the first Royal team to return to the Hardwood Classic since 2001. With their fourth-place finish in 2017-18, they became the first team in 42 years to bring a trophy back to the Royal Slope.