Comeback wins vault Rival boys to playoffs

By Ethan Riker and Gary Zambor 
Posted 2/21/24

By Ethan Riker and Gary Zambor 


After an upset win over Bellevue Christian, East Jefferson’s boys basketball team split its last two regular-season games to finish at .500 …

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Comeback wins vault Rival boys to playoffs




After an upset win over Bellevue Christian, East Jefferson’s boys basketball team split its last two regular-season games to finish at .500 and qualify for a road playoff game.

When EJ visited BC in Bellevue on Jan. 5, the Vikings savaged the Rivals, 64-35. Few expected anything different from the Feb. 2 rematch in Port Townsend. At 6-7, the fifth-place Rivals were reeling from the previous night’s lopsided loss to league-leading Annie Wright in Chimacum, and now they had to face the Nisqually League’s third-best team, the 10-3 Vikings. Moreover, the Rivals remained without Head Coach Emmanuel Abbott, who missed the Annie Wright game due to illness. Assistant coaches Chris Stepanski and Chris Harris again had to lead the team in his absence.

But EJ surprised BC by taking a 22-20 lead by the end of the first quarter. “We came out fast and intense,” said junior Traycen Brown, who scored nine points that night. “It was tough, but we bounced back from Annie Wright.”

“We went into the game with high intensity and a winning mindset,” agreed senior point guard Brody Moore, who grabbed six rebounds and dished eight assists. 

Although the Vikings came back and took a 39-38 lead into halftime, EJ never lost heart. “We lift each other up if we get in our [own] heads,” Moore explained.

EJ poured it on in the third quarter, outscoring BC, 23-14. The Vikings came on strong in the fourth, but the Rivals beat them back to prevail, 85-80.

Several EJ seniors dominated the game. Six-foot-eight post Stuart Dow recorded a double-double, dropping 20 points and snagging 13 rebounds; he also blocked five shots. Shooting guard Keidan Guzman racked up 13 points, pulled down eight rebounds, and had six assists. Cash Holmes got into a flow and balled out, sinking five three-pointers. Aidan Stepanski scored 16 points, and continues to use his strength as an enforcer to punish opponents who won’t let him score. The upset win lifted EJ to 7-7.

Next, the Rivals hosted 0-12 Vashon in Chimacum on Senior Night. Playing like a team with nothing to lose, the hungry Pirates hung around throughout the first half, refusing to let the Rivals open a large lead. Then, in the third quarter, Vashon caught fire, busted the game open, and put up a 14-point lead.

Abbott called timeout and gave his team an impassioned pep talk. Addressing his seniors, the coach asked, “Is this how you wanna go out at home?”

He sent five boys from the Class of 2024 back onto the court and EJ tore off a 15-0 run to close the deficit. 

The towering Dow took over the game. Following a steal with an emphatic dunk, he fired up his teammates by hanging on the rim for a few seconds while the packed Chimacum gym erupted in deafening cheers. Dow scored 23 points, hauled in 15 rebounds, and blocked six shots.

Guzman added 14 points, 13 boards, and four steals. Moore contributed another 11 points and six assists.

Vashon battled to the end, and the fourth quarter featured several lead changes, but the Rivals simply refused to lose on Senior Night. EJ prevailed, 74-72. After the game, the crowd honored EJ’s seniors and their parents.

The 8-7 Rivals concluded the regular season on the road against 17-0 Annie Wright on Feb. 8, just one week after the undefeated Gators had devoured EJ in Chimacum, 91-39. History repeated itself in Tacoma: the Gators again gobbled up the Rivals, 83-37. Further game details were unavailable at press time.

EJ ended the regular season at 8-8, good enough for fifth place in the Nisqually League. That finish qualified the Rivals to play in the pigtail round of the District Three 1A tournament.

On Feb. 13, EJ traveled to Tacoma to challenge fourth-place Life Christian (9-7), which had swept the Rivals during the regular season. 

Life Christian “underestimated us,” said Aidan Stepanski. “They started their backups.” The Rivals leapt to an early 16-8 lead over Life Christian’s reserves by the end of the first quarter. At that point, Stepanski said, the Eagles “finally brought in their starters,” but the Rivals defended their lead throughout a low-scoring, physical second quarter.

Both teams lit up the scoreboard in the second half, and EJ’s lead slowly eroded. Late in the game, LC hit three consecutive three-pointers, enabling the Eagles to prevail, 84-76.

“We held them back all game,” said Moore. “Skill wasn’t an issue. Mindset and intensity really dictated the game.”

“We were confident,” said senior Garret Fordham. “We knew we had a game on our hands,” but the Rivals were “just unable to execute” in the end.

The defeat ousted EJ from the playoffs, marking a frustrating finish to a season filled with promise.