Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Braves Sports, March 14, 2012

Photo by Karla Reynolds
Alumni hoop tourney assumes greater meaning
By Bill Reynolds
La Conner High alums last weekend honored the memory of one of the school's most unforgettable players.
Braves from five different decades gathered Friday for their seventh annual alumni tournament, the first of which to memorialize La Conner All-Stater Erik Tjersland, who in 1987 helped lead La Conner to a third place finish at Spokane.
Tjersland, a standout in the classroom as well as on the court, went on to study and play basketball at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma.
His death last year at age 42 shocked and saddened his many local friends and former La Conner teammates, a number of whom participated in the four-team tourney at Landy James Gym.
The unassuming Tjersland, blessed with size, speed, and a soft shooting touch from almost anywhere on the floor, was often bemused at the attention he drew from local fans – who regularly filled Landy James Gym to see him play.
Imagine, then, what his reaction to Friday's event might've been.
La Conner players from as far back as the 1970s – featuring in some cases multiple generations within families – took part.
La Conner head coach Scott Novak had earlier this year formally renamed the popular tournament in Tjerland's memory.
"We cherish our memories of Erik Tjersland," said Novak, "and the joy he brought to La Conner High School, its basketball program, and his many friends and fans."
Novak, like Tjersland, joined the Braves' hoop program in the 1980s and has worked tirelessly to preserve its rich history.
The alumni tournament is among the more visible examples of that effort.
This year's format was a four-team affair won by the Swinomish entry, whose roster included Steve "Rudy" Edwards from the 1979 La Conner High School State entry coached by George Gamble.
Swinomish edged Danny's Dunkers, led by current Braves' assistant coach Danny Hagen, by a 62-54 margin in the tourney finale.
Hagen, who also attended Meadowdale High School in suburban Snohomish County, is each year impressed by the level of support the La Conner alumni tournament receives.
"Meadowdale's a much bigger school and they can usually get four teams out to do a tournament like this," said Hagen, "so it's pretty special to get the same turnout here for a much smaller school."
La Conner Brewing Co. and the Old Timers rounded out the bracket.
The Old Timers' roster included many of Tjersland's former La Conner teammates, including Ben Winkes ('86), his former partner in the paint who had delivered a heartfelt eulogy at the funeral service.

Photo by Karla Reynolds
Braves making pitch for another post-season run
By Bill Reynolds
Despite a revamped roster, La Conner High is again well-armed for and setting its sights on the upcoming baseball playoff hunt.
Few clubs could survive losing three key seniors to graduation and top pitcher Tyler Howlett to injury from a club that placed third at State a year ago, yet still aim high in terms of post-season aspirations.
Most, in fact, would anticipate a rebuilding season – or two.
But the Braves, under fifth-year coaches Jeremiah LeSourd and Andy Otis, are no ordinary program.
La Conner, while young, returns 10 players – five of whom are starters – from a team that went 17-7 in 2011, capturing top honors at the League, District, and Regional levels before making a strong State showing.
All of which is cause for optimism with LeSourd and Otis, both of whom are former La Conner High standouts.
"We're very young this year," LeSourd acknowledges, "but we have depth and athleticism at each position."
It all starts on the mound, even without Howlett, a talented junior.
"Losing Tyler, who was also our cleanup hitter, to an ankle injury is tough," LeSourd said Thursday. "But we may have as many as six to 10 pitchers this year who could play large roles for us."
By contrast, the Braves pretty much rode two elite hurlers into the 2011 post-season fray.
"Depth is really a luxury we haven't always had in the past," concedes LeSourd.
Among top returnees on the present 16-man La Conner roster are senior Matt McCauley; juniors Dakota Hartley, Tanner Cyr, and Christian Johnston; and sophomore Wil James.
They will likely comprise the corps of players LeSourd and Otis call upon for leadership on the field as the regular season unfolds.
"Our leadership," said LeSourd, "will come from our upperclassmen. We've been in the playoffs the past four years and they know what it takes to be successful."
Ditto LeSourd and Otis, who rose from the local youth league ranks – where they coached a number of their current players – to take the high school reins in 2008.
In their first campaign, they guided La Conner to a 10-10 mark, missing a Regional tourney berth by a single game.
The next season, under LeSourd and Otis, La Conner improved to 11-10 and qualified for Regionals, where the Braves fell to eventual State titlist Northwest Christian.
Two years ago La Conner returned to Regionals, sporting a fine 15-8 slate, before bowing out with a tough 8-7 loss to Napavine.
LeSourd and Otis will again welcome second-year assistant Tommy Peth, also a La Conner High product, in the Braves' dugout.
Peth played three seasons at La Conner for LeSourd and Otis before joining the coaching staff in time for last year's deep playoff run.
The defending Northwest 1A/2B champs expect another tight league race, with challenges sure to be posed by familiar rivals Friday Harbor and Concrete.
"Each year," LeSourd said, "we all battle for the League title, and this year should be no different."  
Photo by Karla Reynolds
La Conner hoopsters net post-season honors
By Bill Reynolds
La Conner High basketball players continue to score points even after the season has ended.
Four La Conner players landed on the boys' All-League team, while two Lady Braves were similarly recognized during recent polling of NW 1A/2B coaching staffs.
La Conner seniors Landy James and Mike Wilbur and junior Spencer Novak, all of whom helped lead the Braves to a 22-4 mark and State Tournament appearance, were first unit All-NW 1A/2B picks.
The three were consistent double-digit scorers and lock-down defenders for La Conner, whose season highlights included a non-league win at 3A Sedro-Woolley and an impressive home shootout triumph over a touring Australian select team.
James, tabbed the League's Player of the Year, was a versatile performer able to score while either posting up or facing the basket, often from behind the three-point arc. He also led the Braves in blocked shots and dunks. His ability to freeze defenders with spin moves and scissors dribbles was also a crowd favorite.
Wilbur served as the Braves' crafty point guard and floor leader. He routinely filled the stat sheet with points, steals, and assists, plus had a knack for drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line when needed. 
Novak emerged as a major outside scoring threat, doing significant damage from the perimeter in big wins at Toutle Lake and Concrete. Many felt his first half shooting display against the Lions was the finest they'd ever seen from a La Conner player.
Tyler Howlett, another key member of the Braves' squad, was a second team All-NW 1A/2B selection.
But Howlett, a talented junior forward, went down in January with a season-ending ankle injury. His absence was sorely felt in the post-season by La Conner, which rallied for its record 36th State tourney berth before falling at Spokane to Dayton and eventual champion Colfax.
Veteran La Conner head coach Scott Novak was recognized as well for again guiding the Braves to the Elite Eight, earning League Coach of the Year honors.
Novak likewise coached the Lady Braves, whose senior guards Priscilla Ponce-Venegas and Nikki Finley were All-League choices.
Ponce-Venegas frequently led La Conner, which advanced to the Regional Tournament in Longview, in all statistical categories. In addition to being the team's floor leader, Ponce-Venegas was a dynamic scorer able to drive the paint, spot up for mid-range jumpers, or post-up in the blocks. She was also a tenacious defender, especially when La Conner pressed full-court.
Finley was a perfect complement to Ponce-Venegas in the Lady Braves' backcourt. She frequently displayed extended range on her jumper, often hitting from well beyond the trey stripe. Finley was equally comfortable off the dribble, either driving the lane for scoop shots or kick-outs to open teammates.
Ponce-Venegas and Finley helped lead La Conner to a 17-7 overall mark and runner-up finish in the League standings.

Photo by Karla Reynolds

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