SUNNYSIDE “I really wish the Big 9 would go to honoring the program and not a coach because I would have never gotten here by myself… it’s the program. It’s not me,” SHS Head Coach Rick Puente disclosed.
Following the Lady Grizzlies’ dramatic 1-point loss in the closing seconds of their 53-52 game against the Woodinville Falcons in the WIAA 4A Hardwood Classic last Wednesday, Feb. 27, in the Tacoma Dome, the team earned a brand of respect for their basketball program — one which could not be measured by an analytic to quantify the heart of a champion.
The Lady Griz, Big 9 Conference and District champions, played three loser-out games on their long and winding, snow-covered route to the state tournament. The fourth “one and done” game was an opportunity to play against the top seeded Falcons out west.
“Just the grit that the girls showed… And, you could hear it… You could feel it... You know, it was simply amazing,” SHS Head Coach Rick Puente described as his voice cracked under the emotional weight from a captivating season that began on Nov. 12, 2018.
“I told the girls after the game, it was an honor to be allowed to take part in that journey with them,” he said.
The coach’s admiration for this talented group of student athletes, who distinguished themselves both on and off the court, and set them apart from any past teams, was heard throughout his heartrending tone.
“I just think that this group was hungry. They were competitive,” Puente expressed. “Their resiliency in tough situations, not to lose their composure, made this team special,” he revealed by illustrating the team’s maturity for being calm, cool and collected when a situation tested their resolve.
As Woodinville went on a run toward the end of the game, he said the pressure of the moment was never too big for his team. They communicated out on the court, made some in-game adjustments and remained focused as the Lady Griz sustained a 1-point lead until the last bucket with four seconds remaining.
“They went out there and executed the game plan, and they got us within a point of winning the game,” Puente proudly acknowledged. “That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes... That’s the best and worst thing about sports... is that someone has to win, and someone has to lose. And, unfortunately we didn’t come out with the ‘W’!”
Entering the game, there were a lot of people in attendance who weren’t giving Sunnyside a snowball’s chance in Hades coach said. From the spectators, coaches, to print, television and radio play-by-play announcers, the No. 9 seeded team from Yakima County’s Lower Valley, was not distracted by the negative commentary.
“The girls never bought into that. They knew, if they played a solid game, that they would be in it at the end. And, look what happened, they were there!”
Since last summer, the team led by five seniors, set in place a triple crown of championship goals to attain. It was a challenge embraced by all players, as well as the coaching staff.
After the season’s grueling three and a half months had come to an end, Sunnyside was undefeated in league play and had only lost two regular season games. The determined group had accomplished two of the three cutting down the net, team goals.
“When you have a group of seniors leaving that were instrumental in what this program has become, it’s definitely hard,” coach replied. “You hate to see them go, especially this group of girls. They were fun to be around... a solid group… really, great individuals. The best thing about it… I think they were better individuals than they were basketball players.”
Once the clock ran out on their magical season, Lady Griz players were able to seek solace with family and friends. They were allowed to take their time and decompress from a tumultuous ending where, on the biggest stage, they gave their best effort and nothing less.
The last tournament game of the night, which tipped off at 9 p.m., and from all accounts, was one of the best games of the tournament.
“They were representing a lot of people. And, coming from an area you don’t really hear about... to go up there and for people to come up after the game and ask, ‘Hey, where’s Sunnyside from, where are you guys at?’ That was a great feeling,” coach declared as he was unsuccessful in holding back a tear or two.
“They definitely deserved that. They deserve all that respect and all that recognition.”
Puente said when the team returned to the locker room, it was a very emotional time. Afterwards, the girls were the only competitors who remained in the somber arena as they were escorted out by personnel staff.
He pointed out that there’s no preparation for an end of the game speech that will turn back the tide of emotions after a heart-wrenching loss.
“You just react to the situation. Those conversations after the last game of the season are always difficult,” coach sadly stated.
He was immediately asked about where that reaction comes from and without hesitation, Puente replied, “From the heart!”