Valiants battle to the end, come up just shy in 4A title game
A sea of off-white, red and powder blue jerseys rushed past Andrew Plambeck, who was bent over at the waist, eyes closed, a resting Evolution basketball nestled between his royal blue Nike Hyperdunks.
The off yonder roar from the Seaside crowd drowned out Plambeck's verbal reaction as he stood upright, glanced up at the Forest Grove High School scoreboard and melancholily bounced the ball with two hands.
The first player to greet Plambeck was fellow senior Ben Robbins. Robbins wrapped his big left arm around Plambeck's shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. Eventually, the two encircled senior Jack Grasberger, who had played like a man possessed, and bunched around each other in the last huddle of the season, brothers in arms, teammates until the end.
For the second straight season, Valley came up just short in the Class 4A state championship game to Seaside, 48-44, on Saturday. Tied at 44 with 46 seconds to go in the fourth, the Seagulls made four free throws down the stretch. Two came off Ryan Hague's right hand and two clutch makes came from Payton Westerholm staring at a one-and-one scenario with six seconds to go.
Yet, Valley had nothing to be repentant about. Few thought the Valiants would reach the state apex again so soon. With just three seniors and a slew of unproven underclassmen slated to play heavy minutes, the belief was Valley was a year away from being in the final four again, let alone the state championship game. Eye-opening losses to Banks and Seaside during the regular season only charged that perception. But what's perhaps best about Valley's season was its resolute attitude and downright stubbornness when it came to the end of this year. Seniors Jack Grasberger, Andrew Plambeck and Ben Robbins wouldn't accept anything less than a repeat state title appearance and pulled their teammates up with them, invoking a late-season run for the ages. The Valiants' solidarity, both on and off the court was evident as the state title game ended. There wasn't a single guy away from the group, hanging his head, wallowing in his own pity. They stayed unified, even through the down times.
"I love every single one of those guys in that locker room," Robbins said. "We all play for each other, for this team. I don't think a lot of people thought we were going to be here after last year's loss. It just proves there's a lot of toughness and resilience about this team and love we have between every guy. I've been on four varsity teams and this team is the closest by far. There's not a single guy I wouldn't go hang out with outside of basketball. We have that chemistry."
They clearly proved the doubters wrong, beating the higher seeded La Grande in the quarters and avenging Banks in the semis. And in the state title game, Valley played stretches of outstanding two-way basketball, leading by as much as six, 25-19, in the third quarter against the same Seaside team that Plambeck said "smacked" the Valiants twice during the regular season.
"We didn't care what everybody else thinks, we only care about what we think and we came out here and played our butts off," Valley Catholic sophomore Daniel Pruitt. "Hats off to Seaside, they're a great team. I think if you play this game 10 times, we would've won five times and they would've won five times. It was an evenly matched game and I'm just super proud our team."
And as the high-level back-and-forth affair undulated with ties and lead changes long into the fourth quarter, in a game of "top this" it was unmistakable Valley belonged back on the big stage.
"There's no one else I'd rather go to war with than these guys," Plambeck said. "People saying we wouldn't make it back was just fuel all summer."
The game was an instant classic, one of those that felt destined for overtime, a fight where it was a shame somebody had to lose. Both teams were championship worthy and put on a thrilling show for the capacity Forest Grove High School crowd. Everyone in the gym except the Blue Crew and Valley's section of fans was against the Valiants. In some instances, it felt like the Valiants were on the road, competing in a hostile environment. Yet Valley rose to the occasion time and time again, matching Seaside's physical toughness and grit with equal staying power and bruising, hard-nosed basketball.
"Everybody stayed in their roles, everyone knew what they had to do and that's why we kept battling and stayed close throughout the game," Robbins said. "Nobody was cheering for us except for our fans. No one likes us except our fans, but it was fun with all the people. It was a great atmosphere."
Plambeck made plays off the dribble, burying tough turnaround jumpers and making clutch free throws. Davis Johnson's hustle and nose for the ball were impressive as was his ability to make important shots and feed Grasberger in the post.
"Everyone knew any given night it could be their moment," Plambeck said. "If you game-planned against one specific person, another would dominate. That's the great part about our team. Everyone accepted their roles pretty early in the season and stayed with them."
Every defensive rebound battle was a mini-war, every shot was contested. The referees let a lot go, as they should in a state title game. Grabbing, bodying, hand contact, hacking seemed to occur on each trip down the court. Every offensive possession was precious, especially with the controlled pace of the game and limited amount of shot attempts on both sides. Of Valley's 26 rebounds, 12 came on the offensive glass. It was what one would expect with so much hanging in the balance.
"We all have individual jobs, but at the end of the day you just have to play your butt off," Pruitt said. "I thought we did a good job of trying to get deflections, trying to get steals, rebounding the crap out of the ball. We did a real job of playing hard, no matter if we were tired. Coming into that fourth quarter we were all saying 'Give everything you have'. And, we really gave it everything we had."
This was a team that turned the corner after getting shellacked by Seaside in late January, winning 10 of its final 11 games leading up to the state title. Players like Pruitt, Johnson and Trey Eberhart stepped into more prominent roles and played vital parts in infusing energy and effort into the lineup. Grasberger became one of the best sixth men in the state, fighting through an ankle injury to come back better than ever down the home stretch of the season. Against Seaside, Grasberger was unguardable. Every time he got the ball on the low block and went to his left hand, the smaller Seagulls were at his absolute mercy. He bullied them with backdown crab dribbles and buried them at the rim with sturdy, yet soft over-the-shoulder finishes off the glance. Eventually, Grasberger's presence demanded a double team from Seagulls, who sent an extra defender at the southpaw the second the ball entered the post. And when the attention came, Grasberger sagely kicked the ball out and re-posted, found the open man cutting to the rim or simply smashed through the Seagulls to make something happen, like drawing fouls inside.
"Seaside's little guys were all over his back, but he didn't care about fouls or anything, he just stayed strong," Robbins said.
"That's some of the best ball I've ever seen Jack play," Pruitt said.
Valley jumped out to a 25-19 third quarter after closing the first half on an 11-2 run, but Seaside responded with back-to-back threes to tie it up at 25-25 in the third. But Grasberger answered, coming out of the rafters to swat away a Chase Janik floater that triggered a two-on-one Johnson lefty layup. Then, the big man pulled down an offensive board and banked it home to reclaim a 29-25 edge. That spree only escalated what was a riotous final 12 minutes or so of action. With a state title on the line, Seaside and Valley traded the game's lead nine times and tied the contest on five separate occasions. Neither team led by more than two in the last 12 minutes of the game. Janik carried Seaside, making impossible floaters and leaners inside. Grasberger (16 points on 6-for-6 shooting and 7 boards), Plambeck (13 points, six boards) and Robbins (four points, three assists) stepped up as only seniors can, making clutch plays in the heat of the moment.
Down 44-42 with 2:53 to go, Grasberger was fouled and made one of two at the free throw line. With 1:30 left, Pruitt was fouled and also made one of two at the charity stripe to tie it 44-44. On the next trip down, Seaside shriveled the clock, hoping to take as much time off as possible. But rather than play for a final shot, Hague took the ball and ran, driving down the left baseline right at Grasberger, who jumped to meet the Seagull guard in mid-flight. It looked like Grasberger was straight up and didn't initiate the contact on the foul call. And a game with much more rough-and-tumble no calls, it felt like Grasberger's infraction was invalid. A no-call and play on would've sufficed. But, Hague made both at the line to give Seaside a 46-44 lead.
With 28 seconds to go, Valley Catholic junior Jack Tetzloff drove baseline, kicked to Johnson who reversed the ball to an open Robbins, who lined up the go-ahead left angle three but shot it just a tad long and back-rimmed the deep triple. Grasberger, fighting for the offensive board, almost knocked it off a Seaside player, but the Seagulls retained possession with nine seconds to go. Then, Westerholm was fouled and coolly made both at the line to make it 48-44.
What transpired in the 4A state championship wasn't de ja vu or checkered history repeated. How many programs would give anything to reach back-to-back championships, never mind the losses? Getting their once is an accomplishment in itself. Making it to the holy grail twice is a momentous feat. In six years, Valley's been to four final fours and three state championship games under head coach Joel Sobotka. The fact Valley not only reached the state title twice but battled their tails off and gave the Seagulls a full 12-pound heavyweight fight is a testament to the Valiants' competitive fabric and the senior leadership provided by the likes of Grasberger, Plambeck and Robbins.
"The sole reason we're here is because of our seniors," Pruitt said. "I couldn't have asked for a better senior group to play with. Our coaches did a great job. At the end of the day Seaside came out on top and that happens. But, I'm happy I got a season with my best friends. They gave me the best season I ever could've asked for."
Pruitt finished the game with 8 points and 4 rebounds. Johnson had three points, three assists and three boards.