The itinerary comes from years of knowledge.
When the Prairie girls basketball team draws a particular starting time for a state bracket, coach Al Aldridge can start figuring out the plan.
He will know the wake-up schedule, the time for team breakfast. If his team draws an evening first-round matchup, such as this year’s tournament, he will have an afternoon shootaround. Then another team meal about three hours before tip-off.
The Falcons are making their 15th consecutive trip to a state tournament, and 28th in all under Aldridge. So yes, one could say they are experts at this whole state experience thing.
But this week, three teams from Clark County will be plotting their way to Tacoma. The Skyview girls and the Union boys are also going to the Tacoma Dome for the 4A tournaments, while Prairie represents Southwest Washington in the 3A girls tournament.
Skyview has a new coach and the next wave of talent since the program’s last trip to the dome in 2008.
Union has one starter this season from the state championship team of 2010. But for many Titans, going to the dome is a first.
Then there are the Prairie girls, who pretty much expect to spend a few days in the Tacoma area every year about this time.
“Every year, your first game determines what your routine is going to be,” Aldridge said. “We get good rest, get our food in at the right time, and get in a shootaround, The routine is the same every year. We’re trying to get as much rest as we can, and we’re going to eat properly.”
Aldridge also hands out an eating regimen, detailing exactly when the players should load up on carbohydrates, listing foods that are good for athletes and the best times to consume those foods.
“The eating and sleeping parts are really critical,” Aldridge said. “Getting kids to buy into the idea that lights out is lights out.”
The Prairie coaches collect phones and computers just prior to bed time in the hotel. Even room assignments are predetermined, often based on personalities.
While just about everything associated with Prairie’s trip to Tacoma is choreographed based on years of experience, the Skyview girls are going to the 4A tournament trying to figure out how to keep winning while dealing with all the tournament distractions.
It’s a good problem to have, learning on the fly.
“I’ve been there as a spectator and always dreamed of coaching a team at the Tacoma Dome,” Skyview coach Jennifer Buscher said. “We know it’s big. We know our depth perception (in the spacious dome) might be a little off. But our motto has always been: Anytime. Anywhere. Anybody. We’re ready.”
The players also have to remind themselves that while the season continues and there are games to be played, going to state also is a celebration in itself.
“I’m so excited I get to play with these girls one more week,” Skyview senior Katie Swanson said. “I feel this season shouldn’t be over yet, so I’m glad that it isn’t.”
Skyview senior Brooke Bowen is looking forward to the time off the court, too. The card games or maybe the board game “Apples to Apples” in the hotel room. Or simply, just hanging out.
“I’m super happy that we made it,” Bowen said. “I’m just excited to spend time with them. But we have to remember it’s serous business at the same time.”
A championship is on the line, after all. Up until last year, the tradition had been a 16-team bracket at state. Honestly, six to eight of those teams were just happy to get there.
Now, just the eight best teams in each classification remain. Not one of the teams is satisfied just making it to the dome.
Over at Union, though, the coaches emphasize the journey as much as the prize. The Titans won the Class 3A boys title in 2010, the last season of the 16-team bracket in Tacoma.
“We had no idea we were going to win the state tournament two years ago. We just enjoyed every moment together,” Union coach Maco Hamilton reminded his players.
The traveling. The meals. The shootarounds. Let it all sink in.
“At the end of the week, dang, we just won the state tournament,” Hamilton recalled.
Tanner Nelson was a key member of that championship run. Now, he is a senior leader.
“I remember just all the fun times with all the guys on that team,” Nelson said. “Missing school. Hanging out at the hotel. It was just all fun.”
He takes a cue from his coach when asked what kind of advice he would give to teammates who have not been to state.
“This is it. Just time to go have fun. This is as far as you can get. Saturday is the last day you can be playing high school basketball,” Nelson said. “Relax and have fun.”
Interestingly, the two Clark County players who have signed Division I scholarships and are playing in Tacoma this week, have had little or no state tournament experience.
Heather Corral of Prairie was a virtual non-factor as a freshman, with an ankle injury that made it difficult just to run. Then she missed the past two state tournaments with different knee injuries.
Wearing a brace and not 100 percent right now, the University of Washington signee said Monday that she is feeling stronger than her freshman year.
“My thing has always been, I just want to be healthy for state,” Corral said. “I have real high expectations. This is, by far, the most talented Prairie team I’ve ever played for.”
At Union, BYU-signee Jordan Chatman is preparing for his first trip to state. Chatman was playing at Skyview the last time Union went to state.
“I’m just excited for this experience, and I’m going to enjoy this journey,” Chatman said.
The games will mean something, too. After all, every athlete who has made it this far wants to test themselves against quality competition.
“I think it’s going to be a crazy atmosphere, and it’s going to be fun playing against the best teams in the state,” Chatman said.
State tournament experience varies from team to team. The excitement associated with going to state is pretty much equal.
Those who are going to the dome understand it is special.