Sometimes Doug Cocke’ still cannot believe what exactly has transpired at Stadium High School.
After serving a few seasons under former longtime Tigers boys basketball coach Dennis Buchholz in the 1990s, Cocke’ returned last year to take the reins, and he coached the team to the Class 4A regionals.
Nine seniors graduated after last season. Five of them, including starting guards Eric Anderson-Connolly and Jordan Powers, played in the backcourt.
Cocke’ figured the Tigers would still be good this season, especially with its height in the frontcourt, led by senior Lucious Brown.
“Best-case scenario, I thought we were in the top four in the (4A) Narrows League,” he said. “I thought our guard play and ball-handling would catch up to us.”
Well, it hasn’t. In fact, with a three-game lead, the Tigers have already clinched a share of the league title — their first since the 1990-91 season.
And on Wednesday night, they have the first of three opportunities to clinch it outright with a home game against Olympia.
“I knew the team would get better,” Cocke’ said. “And they’ve bought in to how to grind possessions out. They have been resilient and like to get things right. That has been really important.”
It has been an interesting journey for Cocke’: Once he got out of the U.S. Army, he walked on to play for former coach Ron Billings at Tacoma Community College in 1987, and started two seasons there.
After graduating from Pacific Lutheran University, Cocke’ bounced around as an assistant — at Stadium with Buchholz, then Pierce College and Seattle University under Dan Kriley. He joined his brother, Mike, at Foss High School.
All four of those coaches have shaped how he views basketball and honed his emphasis on defense.
“Ron was huge on denial defense and understanding one possession at a time,” Cocke’ said. “Dennis taught me how to coach on a daily basis — not get too high or too low; how to grind out possessions — and many of the ‘perfect’ offensive and defense drills I use today are from him.
“Dan was big in teaching me situational defensive drills and more opponent-specific stuff.”
So it was no coincidence the first day of practice in November that Cocke’ approached his team with two goals: win the 4A Narrows title and lead the league in scoring defense. They are doing both.
Brown, a 6-foot-7 do-everything forward, has been a saving grace on both ends and the favorite to take home league player of the year honors. But to push the team over the top, Cocke’ needed to get contributions — anything — from a very inexperienced backcourt.
Guards Eric Tuttle, Mark Galanesi, Blake Budzisz and Ben Cottrill aren’t going to score a whole lot, and none of them is a great ballhandler. But all do the one thing Cocke’ values most – play defense.
Buchholz had not attended a game all season until Friday, when the Tigers upended host Gig Harbor to grab a share of the league title.
“Their play reminds me of the way we used to be at Stadium — real intense and basing things on the defensive end to be competitive,” Buchholz said. “We always wanted our defense to have a wearying effect, starting in the first quarter. It never let up. When you came across midcourt, you had somebody tough on you.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org.