PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles girls basketball team can make its road to the Class 3A state tournament a whole lot easier tonight.
Beat Western Cascade Conference champion Yelm (13-7 overall) in its sub-district seeding game at home at 7 p.m., and the Roughriders (16-4) bypass a prickly first-round matchup with Bonney Lake (17-4) in the 3A West Central/Southwest Washington Bi-district tournament.
Lose, and the off-ramp to the Tacoma Dome is blocked by top-ranked Kennedy (21-0).
So while tonight’s final home game of the season might not be do-or-die time for the Riders, it’s certainly do-or-have-to-do-more.
Port Angeles head coach Mike Knowles knows the stakes. He’s just not making too big a deal of it in the locker room.
“I feel like we can compete with anyone on any given night if we are playing our game,” Knowles said.
“So either way, we’re in a pretty good spot. I told the girls [at Friday’s practice], ‘No pressure, just relax and have fun and go out and play the game.’ “
The Olympic League champion Riders are already in a much better position than they were at this time last year when they were in a loser-out scenario from the get-go at bi-districts.
The result was an early exit after the Riders lost to Enumclaw 51-50.
Now Port Angeles, no matter the outcome tonight, has the luxury of being in the bi-district bracket’s double-elimination portion.
And if the Riders happen to win their first round game on Wednesday night, they’re in the 3A state tournament.
“I think we’re a lot better this year than we were last year,” Knowles, whose team was bounced from districts by Enumclaw after one game in 2008, said.
“We had some good nonleague games. Even though we lost those games, it let us know where we had to get to [compete at districts].”
The games Knowles is referring to came in the middle of the season against 4A Skyline, 3A Ferndale and Sunset, Ore.
The Riders dropped all three in the team’s only losing streak of the season, and responded by going 11-1 in their last 12 games to win the league title going away.
Other than the loss at second-place Kingston (14-6) and an overtime victory at Olympic last week, the Riders won each of those games by double digits.
Sophomore guard Jessica Madison was named the Olympic League MVP after leading the league in scoring at 22.3 points per game.
Senior forward Shelby Napiontek was named to the first team as well after averaging 9.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and just under a block a game.
Senior Emily Cook (6.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) was a second-team player while point guard Danika Goodwin (5.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 4.2 assists per game) earned honorable mention.
“Jess definitely deserved [the MVP],” Knowles said. “She’s a great player. She’s a good all-around ballplayer, and I’m glad the coaches recognized her as being that kind of caliber ballplayer.
“Shelby has stepped up and become more physical. Kids are taking the roles they need. I can’t think of a kid that hasn’t stepped up or played as well or better than they could [this season].”
Beginning with tonight’s matchup with Yelm, however, they are likely to be tested much more than they have since their mid-season skid.
There are no more 1A or 2A Olympic League schools to beat up on, and the Riders will have to adjust to the higher level of play if they want to move on.
“That’s a tough transition,” Knowles said. “I’ve had to deal with that years ago, too. These girls are used to me when we win by 40 still talking about we didn’t do this well, or this well. We’ve been talking about that aspect all year long. When we beat teams by a lot we still have to come back with something better.
“When you get into the district playoffs you are going to be pushed. Having the overtime game against Olympic helped.”
So did a full offseason with Knowles.
The Riders have played innumerable games together, from summer leagues all the way through the regular season, since being bounced from districts last year.
And all that work was geared toward these next few weeks in late February and early March.
“After we lost to Enumclaw last year in the locker room they said, ‘Coach, when are we going to get back in the gym?’ Knowles said. “[The players] feel like they are right where they wanted to be at this point. Everybody is going to be tough.
“Most everybody in the district has been mentioned somewhere in the state polls throughout the year. It’s not going to be an easy walk.”
It would surely be a lot easier if they can win tonight.