TACOMA — Win or lose in the state championship game, this has been a special season for the Union boys basketball team, for six Titans in particular.
Make that seven: Six seniors and one head coach who came to Union when today’s seniors were freshmen.
“They definitely have a special place with me,” Union coach Blake Conley said. “It’s been really cool to see them grow as people and as players.”
There is a star, a couple more starters, a couple role players and another who had to overcome a back injury. But they all say they are one — one family.
Saturday night, they played for the Class 4A state championship in the Tacoma Dome.
They knew, even before the game started, this was a moment to cherish.
“It’s just cool to get to play in the state championship game in our last game as seniors,” Keithen Shepard said.
Shepard remembers what it was like when Conley took over the program.
“There were a lot of unknowns,” Shepard said.
“He’s been more than I could have asked for, one of the best coaches I’ve ever hard,” Shepard said. “And these guys are my best friends, have been throughout high school and middle school.”
Cole Susee played basketball as a freshman and sophomore, but he took a year off to specialize in baseball.
“I missed it,” he said. “They made me miss it.”
Susee returned to the Titans for this season.
“The environment. The atmosphere of the team, being around them all the time. It never gets old,” he said. “There have been so many good players who have come through the program. It’s really a blessing to be part of it.”
Kai Gamble focused mostly on football last summer and was unsure about basketball. Then he remembered all the great times with his teammates.
“The main reason I tried out this year was these guys,” said Gamble, who played a key role off the bench in Union’s win in the semifinals Friday. “These guys are my brothers. I’ve never been closer to a group of guys before.”
Justin Ongley suffered an injured back and never was able to get in any groove this season. Still, he remains an integral part of this journey.
“It’s everything to me. I’ve loved every second I got to play on the court,” Ongley said. “Even though I wasn’t playing (much), they all counted me as part of the team.”
Austin Lewis became a starter late in the season and has excelled in his new role. He said Conley taught three values when Lewis was a freshman, and those values remain.
“Unity, intensity, and accountability,” Lewis said. “We stuck to those. That’s why we have so much success.”
Lewis said young basketball players look up to the Union basketball program.
“It’s great to be part of this culture,” Lewis said. “Hopefully we set a good example of how Union basketball is supposed to be.”
Then there is Cameron Cranston, the Washington coaches association’s Class 4A state player of the year. A four-year varsity player, he made the game-winner Friday night in the win over Richland.
Cranston and his fellow seniors are playing their last high school game of their lives.
“Four years you’ve put your heart and soul into something, and you really get attached to it,” Cranston said. “An emotional ride. I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything. I’ll remember this for all my life.”
That is the reason for high school athletics.
Playing for championships is the goal.
Playing for each other — that’s the real lesson.