ELLENSBURG — When you win three consecutive 1A state football championships and hold the longest active winning streak in the country at one point, it’s hard to get too rattled on any other stage.
Most of these guys grew up playing on the big stage, and even though the point production fell off in the second quarter of Friday’s 1A regional round with No. 16 Cascade Christian (14-10), the No. 9 Royal Knights (19-5) gathered themselves to advance to the 1A Hardwood Classic with a 57-45 victory.
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, they became the first team in 42 years to bring a trophy back to the Royal Slope.
A year ago, they knocked on the door. This time around they intend to kick it down in their return to the Yakima SunDome for the second consecutive season.
“The Dome is where the champions play,” said Sawyer Jenks, who had 13 of his game-high 27 points in the first quarter Friday night. “I thought we got off to really good start. We came out firing and our defense was really solid.
“There’s definitely a lot more pressure (in a regional play-in) than a normal game, but I feel like it makes us better each time.”
Owen Ellis, who surpassed the 1,500 career point mark earlier in the season, scored on consecutive possessions, including a 3-point shot from the top, to give the Knights a little boost with just under three minutes remaining to make it a seven-point lead after Cascade Christian had closed to 41-37 on a Tate Greiner trey.
Then it was back to Jenks to close. The 6-foot-4 senior made it an eight-point difference with a free throw with 1:30 left, then 49-39 with a power move inside. On the very next possession, Tyler Allred came up with the steal and went coast-to-coast for the layup and the Knights rolled on to the Dome.
“Owen was dealing with an ankle issue, so I challenged the rest of the guys to step up and they did,” said head coach Ray Valle, whose team qualified for the Hardwood Classic for the fourth time in program history. “We put a lot on Sawyer’s plate. He was in the zone already, but he knew he had to step up and he did.”
Jenks finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Caleb Christensen had two from 3-point range and finished with 10 points. Ellis, who spent a lot of his time driving and dishing, scored seven of his 11 points in the final period.
“The ankle didn’t hurt a lot, but it’s more mental,” Ellis said. “Knowing I could roll it was in the back of my mind. We talked about getting me the ball to draw the defense away from the other guys to give them a better chance to score a little more.”
Ellis the decoy was every bit as effective as the scoring force. Valle said he expects the leading scorer in Royal basketball history to be back on his game when they open the 1A Hardwood Classic in the 9 p.m. game on Wednesday at the SunDome.
“Getting back to the Dome is what you practice for all year,” Valle said. “We have another loser-out game, but we’ll take it one-game-at-a-time and take care of our own business.”
Cascade Christian 10 5 16 14 - 45
Royal 20 8 11 18 - 57
Cascade Christian - Ben Vandouris 9, Conner Zetterberg 2, Tate Greiner 7. Nathan Larsen 19, Parker Johnson 8. Totals: 17 3-7 45
Royal - Angel Farias 2, Sawyer Jenks 27, Gage Christensen 3, Caleb Christensen 10, Tyler Allred 4, Owen Ellis 11. Totals: 24 7-9 57