Her players laughed. But Michelle Birge wasn’t telling a joke — she was making a declaration.
She said it again, this time more direct.
“Mark my words: This team is coming back to state,” the eighth-year Wilson girls basketball coach said. “We’ll get back.”
As familiar as that sounds to Birge’s current players, that’s was actually what she told her team following the 2013 season, when the Rams had seven seniors graduating from its third-place finish season.
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Only this time she’s saying it at the end of the regular season, not the postseason. And it’s about losing the team’s point guard and leading scorer to a torn ACL, not seven seniors to graduation.
Wilson has reached the 3A state tournament each of the past two years since Birge made her proclamation, pushing its state-tournament streak to five consecutive years.
And she’s got everyone’s attention.
“I told the girls (at Friday’s practice) that the mission is to steal the district title and the mission is to punch our ticket to state,” said Birge, a former point guard, herself, at Foss. “For the last eight years I’ve been preaching to every single team I’ve coached: It’s not about how much talent you have. It is not. In girls basketball, historically, you got to get 12 girls to love each other unequivocally — regardless of who is getting the press and who is not getting the press; regardless of who is getting the minutes and who is not getting the minutes. Because it’s not about the talent, it’s about believing in each other.
“Wholeheartedly, I have believed in this team all year long. I would tell you that this is the most together team I’ve ever had and the heart of that is because of the adversity we’ve suffered.”
Birge could probably get her players to run through a wall if she asked.
Especially senior Kiara “Kiki” Knox. In the three games since junior point guard Josie Matz went down with the season-ending injury to her right knee, Knox has averaged 24 points, and put up 24 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists and eight steals on senior night against Capital.
She’s used to doing the dirty work on the team, and playing second-fiddle in scoring — last year to Violet “Kapri” Morrow and this year to Matz.
“Kiki never gives up,” senior forward Erica Hamlin said. “She hustles, takes all of the hits and makes all of her shots.”
Not that Knox thinks this is her opportunity to start playing first fiddle.
“Now that we don’t have Josie, everybody tells me that, ‘Kiki, it’s your game now. You have to control it,’ ” Knox said. “But it’s really not my game. This is my whole team’s game.
“But at the end of the day, I know that in order for my team to do their job, I have to be that leader and help them out.”
She and Birge showed up at Matz’s house with a Frappuccino the night Matz texted the rest of the team to tell them she’d miss the rest of the season.
“Everybody thought that, without Josie, we weren’t going to go do anything,” Knox said. “Coach sat down and talked to us and she read over our goals again and said we still need to work hard and she talked about it again after the Lincoln game (an overtime loss).
“I mean, our team strongly believes we are going to get to state again.”
But there’s been some remodeling of the lineup.
Without Matz, Kiara McMillan moves to starting point guard. And Knox will start at post, per usual, but slide to point guard when McMillan needs a break. Knox said she played point guard her first two years in the program.
“I was at home and I got a text saying she was going to be out and I was really hurt,” McMillan said. “I ran to my mom and she gave me advice on what I have to do to step up. She said, ‘Now it’s your time to show them what you can do.’ ”
And Matz, who suffered the injury in the third quarter against Central Kitsap on Jan. 27, is now listed as a manager on the team roster, with her scoring average of 20.4 points per game in parenthesis.
She might be the highest-scoring team girls basketball manager in the country.
“I don’t have anything to offer with my physical presence on the court, so now I have to verbally offer what I can,” Matz said.
Wilson enters the first round of the West Central/Southwest bidistrict tournament Thursday with a home game against Sumner at 7 p.m. But it’s the first time in four years Wilson hasn’t entered as the 3A Narrows League champion; that distinction goes to Lincoln this season.
“I don’t want everybody to think that because Josie is out that our team is done for,” Knox said. “Our team is fighting. Our team is still going to fight at every single game to work hard. And we are going to make it to state. I believe it.”