Blazers Women in High Spirits as Coronavirus Delays NWAC Tourney

By Eric Trent

etrent@chronline.com

EVERETT — Centralia College women entered a shootaround practice at noon on Thursday, March 5 in preparation for their Northwest Athletic Conference playoff opener against Yakima Valley at 6 p.m. that night.

Centralia coach Caleb Sells called it one of the best practices his team had put together all season. The top-seeded Blazers were primed and ready to face the fourth-seeded Yaks.

“Our girls looked focused,” Sells said. “Everything looked crisp and clean, shots were falling down. It looked like a machine. I don’t think we could have gone into our game having a much better practice shootaround than that.”

The team then had a quick lunch and returned to Everett Community College at around 1 p.m. to watch the second half of the tournament’s opening game, North Idaho vs. Lower Columbia, a contest the Cardinals ended up winning 53-50.

But as the Blazers entered the gym, something unexpected happened.

“As soon as I walked in the door someone waived me down and said, ‘We’ve got to talk,’” Sells said. “They told us to go home.”

The NWAC had suspended the tournament for fear of players’ and fans’ safety due to the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the state. An Everett CC student had tested positive for COVID-19 and the NWAC and the college didn’t want to put any players or spectators at risk.

So Sells and the Blazer ran back to their hotel, threw all their gear in the team van and drove back to Centralia that day. He gave the players the weekend off while the NWAC decided what to do next.

When was the last time anything of this magnitude has happened?

“My athletic director (Bob Peters) told me the only other time something like this has happened was when Mount St. Helens blew and they had to cancel a bunch of baseball tournaments,” Sells said. “This is different, that’s for sure.”

Sells said the NWAC is expected to announce soon that the men’s and women’s tournaments will resume Thursday, with the men’s at Clackamas Community College, and the women’s at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon.

“I have never set foot on Linn-Benton’s campus,” Sells said.

The last time the Blazers played Linn-Benton was in a tourney last season, in which they beat the Road Runners.

The biggest inconvenience was Sells and his assistants taking days off work and the players missing class while driving up, spending the night and coming back to Centralia without having played a game.

The first two rounds of the Sweet 16 for the Blazers will begin at Linn-Benton on Thursday and Friday, and if the Blazers survive they’ll move on to the Final Four, which will be moved to Clackamas to join the boys tourney for one central location.

“Everything is being decided by the health-governing bodies right now, so we don’t really have a say in anything, we just sit around and wait to be told what to do and try not to worry about it too much,” Sells said. “It’s out of people’s control. It’s no one’s fault. People are making decisions based on trying to keep everyone safe. We understand that.”

The only thing Sells and the Blazer do control right now is practice. Last time the Blazers had a break this long between games was Christmas break, where they had 10 days off, from Dec. 18 to 27. They weren’t even practicing then, however. The team took this last weekend off, but they were back in Centralia College’s gym Monday, knocking down shots from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in preparation for Thursday’s matchup with Yakima Valley (21-8).

“The difference between that and this is we’re playing almost every day, so the girls are sharp, their shots look good,” Sells said. “We’re healthy. We’ve had the same eight kids all year, everyone knows what they’re doing. We’re just trying to make sure they stay in basketball form. Our practices are pretty competitive, so we’re ready. Yakima is a tough team. Every team is tough.”

The sixth-ranked Trailblazers (21-7) have been tearing through competition and are on a 14-game win streak, which includes a perfect 14-0 run through league play to capture the West Region title. Their win streak is second-longest in the NWAC after Umpqua’s 29-game streak.

The Blazers are led by sophomore post Selena Cudney, recently named the West Region MVP after averaging 13.1 points and eight rebounds per game.

“She makes us a different team, right then and there,” said Sells, who was named West Region Coach of the Year. “Gives us that post presence we didn’t really have last year.”

Sophomore Caitlin Yenne and Lindsey Nurmi are first-team all-West selections, as well as members of the All-Defensive Team. Sophomores Piper Cai and Megan Cash are second-team all-West selections. Yenne is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 14.1 points per game.

The Blazers played a tough non-region schedule to start the season, and all seven of their losses came early on. They haven’t lost since falling 61-49 to Peninsula College on Jan. 4.

If they beat Yakima Valley on Thursday, they’ll face the winner of second-seeded Lane (23-6) and third-seeded Bellevue (18-6) in the Elite Eight. The Blazers lost to both teams in November and December.

There isn’t one team that’s the undisputed favorite this year, Sells said. There are 10 teams that could realistically make a run at the title.

Centralia entered the tournament last season as the No. 3 seed, won their first-round match, hung with top-ranked Big Bend until the fourth quarter in the second round until Bend blew the game open and eliminated the Trailblazers.

“We had a respectable showing, but last year we were a team full of freshman,” Sells said. “Now the kids are a little more seasoned, a little more experienced.”

With the Blazers sophomore-heavy this season and on a 14-game win streak, it’s looking they have a chance to make a deep run in the tournament this year. And having the tourney pushed back a week hasn’t dampened the Blazers spirits one bit.

“It just means we’re guaranteed to spend one more week with each other,” Sells said. “If you look at it from that perspective, it’s really not the worst thing in the world.”

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