Mark Lovelady was part of the fabric of Life Christian Academy.
That’s why it was safe to wonder how the Eagles basketball team would do without him this season.
“He had a big impact,” said Noah Robinson, the leading scorer on an Eagles basketball team that’s headed to the Spokane Arena for a Class 2B state quarterfinals game Thursday afternoon.
“Coach Lovelady was always the guy to make everyone laugh, or support you when you were having a bad day.”
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Lovelady left Life Christian for a job in Arizona after guiding the Eagles to their 11th state tournament appearance last year. The program, though, hasn’t missed a beat.
Charles Simmons Jr., a former volunteer for the program, stepped in asking a rebuilt roster to buy into a season-long commitment to team concepts, and freeing the Eagles to play a speedier, more intense style.
Life Christian won the Class 2B Pacific League by two games and are 19-4. The No. 7 seed entering regionals, the Eagles pulled away from second-seeded Toledo late on Saturday to earn their quarterfinals berth.
“We reacted well to the coaching change,” said sophomore Omari Maulana, who averages 10.8 points per game. “We all bought into what he has to say. We get what he wants. Coach Chuck is aggressive. He wants us to play faster. It’s a style that fits the talent we have.”
Simmons has seen his team come together, but knew from the beginning it would take time.
“We wanted to be consistent over time. That wasn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s, ‘We not me.’ If we follow that, everyone’s going to get what they want from the opportunity.”
Bringing a team together under a new coach and a new philosophy is never easy, but Life Christian had the added challenge of having three varsity-worthy freshmen, including Tacoma Baptist transfer Bradley Swillie (8.2 points per game).
Another key transfer, junior Derek Wallace, had primarily been a junior varsity player at Wilson, but saw just enough varsity action last season to have to appeal to the WIAA for eligibility at Life Christian. His appeal was recently granted, so he stepped into the rotation in a big way midway through the season.
“It was a new experience for the freshmen,” Maulana said. “But, after summer league, people clicked and fit into the game plan.”
Robinson, a 6-2 swing man who averages a team-high 15.7 points per game, said the upperclassmen have taken responsibility for the younger players.
“We found ways to have them buy into what the school is all about and what the team is about,” he said. “We’re always talking to them, keeping them up and keeping them encouraged.”
Simmons has been delighted with the efforts of both Robinson, the runner-up for 2B Pacific MVP this season, and Maulana, who won the MVP honor a season ago.
“They’re winners,” Simmons said. “Noah can shoot it, put it on the floor or post up. Omari can go out and defend the other team’s best player.”
Despite all the successes, Simmons said Life Christian has had “a season of ups and downs.”
After losing a nonleague game to two-time defensing state champion Kittitas — which features Gonzaga signee Brock Ravet, who is the state’s all-time leading scorer — the Eagles won 12 consecutive games before losing their 2B Southwest District semifinal to Willapa Valley.
The Eagles had beaten the Vikings by 22 points on the road just three weeks before. They led by 10 with three minutes to go in the third quarter of the district game, but couldn’t hang on.
“That game was actually something of a blessing from God,” Simmons said. “We had that long winning streak going. I don’t think it would have been good for us to go into the state tournament on that kind of high.”
The Eagles learned the lesson Simmons hoped they would.
“The loss gave us more hunger, more fire,” Robinson said. “We came with the mindset we couldn’t have a slow practice or an on-and-off practice.”
After squandering a first half lead against streaky-shooting Toledo in the state regionals, Life Christian fought through a tight stretch where 14 consecutive baskets either gave the shooter’s team the lead or tied the game.
Then, sparked by four consecutive free throws by Wallace, the Eagles pulled away for the win.
“A true champion plays through situations like that,” Maulana said. “It’s just another day at the office. We’ve already put in the work. Basketball is a game of runs. It comes down to who can put together the last run one possession at a time.”
Nonetheless, Life Christian is happy to have earned a berth straight into the quarterfinals as opposed to being forced to play in Wednesday’s loser-out opening round — where last season they were eliminated by Brewster.
“It’s a great confidence booster,” Maulana said. “Our team’s morale is all the way up. It’s a great feeling to go in with a first-round bye and have an extra day to practice.”
“It’s a really big blessing.,” Robinson said. “We don’t have to stress about being one-and-done.”
The Eagles believe they have what it takes to win three straight and hoist the biggest trophy on Saturday.
“It’s not just about making it to state, it’s about winning state for our seniors,” Maulana said.
“It’s all mental at this point,” Simmons said. “That’s been drilled into our guys all season. They know what it takes to win a championship.”