YAKIMA — Even though his team was trailing one of the top-ranked programs in the state by only two points after the first quarter, La Center coach Jeremy Ecklund knew there might be reason for concern.
After putting up a combined 40 points over the first eight minutes, the up-and-down pace of the contest was foreign to the Wildcats.
But for third-seeded Zillah, it was second nature.
“We get a chance to see film and study any team these days, and we knew they were going to want to play fast,” Ecklund said. “Even though we were right in it through one, I thought if we kept playing their game we could run out of gas quickly.”
That is exactly what happened, as the Leopards limited the No. 6 seed Wildcats to just six second-quarter points en route to a 78-55 victory in their Class 1A regional showdown on Saturday night at Davis High School.
Senior forward Jake Wise led La Center (16-5) with 21 points, while freshman point guard Hunter Ecklund added 13 and Matt Baher scored 10.
Zillah (23-1) deployed a full-court press from the start, taking the slower-paced Wildcats out of their comfort zone.
Pressure defense often turned to offense for Zillah, led by senior Trey Delp’s 30-point showing, while sharp-shooting guard Nate Whitaker added 25.
La Center was able to find the game better in the second half, as Zillah dropped into a half-court defense.
“I thought we executed that part of our game very well, especially in the second half when we got into our half-court offense more often” Ecklund said. “When we can find our rhythm we get off screen and rolls and get to the basket which is our strength.”
By virtue of finishing as a top-8 seed in the WIAA’s RPI rankings, the Wildcats will return to Yakima — this time under the roof of the SunDome — at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday to face No. 14 seed La Salle in a loser-out contest. The winner of that game will go on to play fourth-seed and defending champion King’s in the quarterfinals.
This is the first time that the Wildcats have advanced past the regional round since 2003.
“As soon as we came into the locker room after the game we told the kids to be excited about the chance of playing four games instead of three next week,” Ecklund said. “I actually think this was a good experience for us to play our regional game here before making the trip again next week. It gets us more comfortable with what to expect.”
ZILLAH 78, LA CENTER 55
LA CENTER — Eastman 0, Jake Wise 21, Seter 7, Matt Baher 10, Hunter Ecklund 13, Leslie 2, Bork 0, Weaver 2, Shaw 0, Amstutz 0. Totals 22-47 (4) 7-10 55.
ZILLAH — Widner 8, Salinas 4, Trey Delp 30, Nate Whitaker 25, Sandlin 2, Ellis 2, Burge 3, Slack 2, Ponce 2, Diaz 0, Godina 0, Tilley 0. Totals 31-64 (8) 8-11 78.
La Center 19 6 17 13 — 55
Zillah 21 16 23 18 — 78