The road to a Class 2A state basketball title started on a bus.
Not a bus to Yakima, but a bus back to Tacoma after a crushing overtime loss to Kennedy Catholic in a winner-to-state game. That was 383 days ago.
The Foss High School boys basketball team was going home — not to the Class 3A state regionals, and not to the Tacoma Dome. The Falcons weren’t going to the Tacoma Dome this year, either.
The school reclassified from 3A to 2A last January, meaning any state tournament trips would result in a three-hour trek to the east side of the mountains instead of a quick drive downtown.
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Foss coach Mike Cocke’ knew that transition had the potential to turn off some players, so he gave them a choice.
“Cocke’ said, ‘If you want to win a state championship, get on the bus,’” Foss junior Demetrius Crosby said.
“Some people didn’t get on the bus. People who got on the bus stayed, and stuck with it, and now we’re champions. I love it.”
The top-ranked Falcons (25-5) will take a trophy — the biggest trophy — back to Tacoma.
“We’ve been working so hard for this,” Foss senior Donald Scott said. “It was just our destiny.”
Foss finished its long road with a win over fifth-ranked Selah, 83-73, in the 2A state championship game on Saturday night at the Yakima Valley SunDome.
“Tonight, I opened up my talk with them about how proud I was that they all bought in,” Cocke’ said. “They committed to each other, they loved one another, they sacrificed individual goals for team goals.
“That’s an amazing group of young men in there.”
Roberto Gittens, The News Tribune’s All-Area player of the year, scored 22 points and pulled down 12 rebounds to lead the Falcons to their first title win since 2000.
“It means a lot,” Gittens said. “You can go get one in Seattle all you want, but you bring one back to your hometown, to all of your friends, it means a lot more.”
Gittens, a Boise State commit, scored eight points for the Falcons in the final quarter to help silence a late Selah push. He was later named the tournament MVP.
“I’m just so happy for him,” Cocke’ said. “It shows a lot for him to come back (to Foss), to do this thing when everyone else told him he should transfer.
“He said, ‘No. I’m going to go be with my coach, and be with my family, and we’re going to win this thing.’ And we did it.”
But Selah didn’t make it easy.
The Vikings turned up the pressure early behind sophomore Elijah Pepper, who scored a game-high 30 points. Pepper peppered five 3-pointers throughout the contest to keep Foss at bay.
He scored four consecutive baskets near the end of the first quarter to give the Vikings a 10-point lead.
“We knew in the first half, first quarter that because of the crowd and the home court advantage, that we were going to have to handle the run,” Cocke’ said.
“That’s what we did. I looked at Berto on a free throw when (Selah was) up about seven and I just said, ‘Weather the storm.’ And we did. We bared down, we got stops.”
Foss regained the lead on a basket by Gittens midway through the second quarter and never let it go.
Selah cut the lead to three points on a Riley Quincy bucket with 5:20 to go, but Gittens took over after that.
He fueled a late surge by the Falcons on a fast break with just under four minutes to play. Scott lobbed a long pass and Gittens viciously slammed it into the hoop.
Selah never got closer than seven from that point, and Crosby pitched in four points down the stretch to seal the win. Gittens started to feel it.
“They were looking devastated and throwing up shots,” he said. “I couldn’t even control myself. I was jumping up and down. I was ready to win. I couldn’t wait.”
“I’m just grateful we have these people that are with us,” Crosby said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
Scott, who was selected to the all-tournament first team, completed a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Crosby scored another 18 points for Foss, and was selected to the all-tournament second team.
“The atmosphere was crazy,” Crosby said. “It just gave us a lot of juice and momentum, and the motivation to keep pushing.”
The Falcons finished 20th in the WIAA’s RPI rankings after three out-of-state losses skewed their rating.
But, Foss was still widely considered a state favorite from the time it entered 2A, and didn’t lose a game to a team in its classification this season.
“It’s hard to be king of the hill,” Cocke’ said. “Every night we played, we got everybody’s best punch.”
That continued to be true in Yakima.
Without a first-round bye, Foss had to beat sixth-ranked Mark Morris on Wednesday. It had to stall seventh-ranked Pullman’s hot shooting on Thursday. And it had to outlast 10th-ranked Lynden on Friday.
“We believed,” Cocke’ said. “The kids believed. … We had to go through a tough, tough bracket, and we were battle tested.”
Foss won its only other state title in 2000 as a 4A team. It competed as a 4A team in each of its 13 state tournament appearances prior to this weekend.
Cocke’ said he wasn’t sure what the state experience would be like in Yakima — this was Foss’ first ever trip to the SunDome.
“Of course we want to play in Tacoma because that’s our home and backyard,” Cocke’ said.
“But, to come over here and stay in a hotel for four days, be treated like royalty, to play in that type of environment … it was a phenomenal basketball experience for our guys.”
Cocke’, in his first state title win as a coach, knelt down and said he thought of his wife, Shannon, who died of cancer in 2014.
“I know she was with us tonight, I knew she was with me through the tournament,” he said. “When she passed, she told me to keep coaching because it’s my passion, it’s who I am. This is for her.”
For her, for the players that got on that bus with him more than a year ago, and for the city of Tacoma.
“We can bring a ball back to Tacoma,” Scott said. “This is special to bring one back.”
“It means a lot,” Gittens said. “Nobody else has done this in a long time, and it feels great that I was on this team that did it.”
Following the celebration on the court, the trophy presentation and ceremonial cutting down of the nets, the Falcons returned to their locker room.
Through the hallway they could be heard chanting, “253,” their beloved city’s area code.
Foss is the first Tacoma metro school to win a state title since Lincoln beat Ferris for the 4A title in 2002.
“It’s all about Tacoma,” Crosby said. “We’re a big group. We want each other to win and be successful.”
Cocke’ said he felt “immortal” entering Saturday’s championship game because of the overwhelming support he had flowing in from back home.
“We knew Tacoma had our back tonight,” Cocke’ said. “I got a lot of texts from friends that coach in Tacoma, and they said, ‘Bring it home for us.’
“That made me feel good. Even though we’re all at different programs competing against each other, there were people out there that were all Falcons tonight.”
NO. 5 SELAH
NO. 1 FOSS
S – Herting 7, Donato 23, Quincy 4, Dietrich 9, Pepper 30
F – Crosby 18, Gittens 22, Scot 20, Kelly 9, Pollard 10, Nelson 4