To most basketball players, a postseason award is a humbling honor, and a reflection of a season filled with successes.
For Union High’s Tanner Toolson, The Columbian’s All-Region boys basketball player of the year, it symbolizes so much more.
It’s what hard work looks like, getting countless hours in the gym to hone a craft. It’s what determination looks like, not giving up on the process to be a better player. And it’s what patience looks like, waiting for his time to shine and waiting for his body to catch up with his feet.
Call it a Toolson Transformation.
Toolson saved his best season for last, helping Union go 27-1 and place third at state. The All-Region honor is one of many accolades for the senior that includes a league MVP, player of the year by the state coaches association, and multiple all-state honors.
How he got here didn’t come easily. It’s hard to believe the 6-foot-5 senior who can play positions from point guard to center, if needed, began his prep career at Union as a short, 5-foot-6 point guard on the freshman team with overly sized feet. He was jokingly called, “Little Bambi.”
“I looked like a baby deer out there,” Toolson said. “… I had massive shoes.
“I finally grew into myself.”
And grew in more ways than one. Through hard work, determination and drive, he was an all-leaguer as a first-year varsity player last season. This winter, in his league MVP season, he averaged 23 points, 8.5 rebounds and three assists. With Toolson leading the way, Union’s 27 wins set a school record for victories in a season.
With the success comes accolades. For Toolson, the postseason honors mean so much more because of teammates, coaches and family behind him the entire way.
“It’s a dream come true,” Toolson said. “Growing up, I wasn’t always the best or talented player. But everybody kept pushing me and believing in me. I know I wouldn’t be the player I am without them in my life. I’m super grateful.”
The Titans’ hopes of winning the program’s second state title — and first in Class 4A — were dashed in a state semifinal loss to Central Valley. But what came next is what Toolson didn’t expect, and something he said he’ll never forget.
Not disappointment, not anger, but a feeling of hurt spread among players. That spilled over into the next day’s third-place game when the Titans were flooded with emotions knowing it was their final game together.
And they wanted to end with a win.
“We had to give it our all,” Toolson said. “I feel our team did that, and it’s a testament to what we do at Union and how close this family is.
“The brotherhood that we had through the season made us stronger. It’s really special to see, especially the season we had.”
The win over Glacier Peak for third place was Toolson’s final high school game.
Now, his basketball career is on pause. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Toolson is choosing to go on a two-year Mormon mission after high school.
He’s reclassified as a Class of 2022 basketball recruit, and already has scholarship offers from Utah Valley, Portland, and most recently, Boise State. He’ll have four years of college eligibility.
What he hopes to gain as a full-time missionary, he said, is not only physical maturity, but a spiritual growth by serving others. Another transformation is in store when Toolson steps back on the basketball court, this time in college.
“It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for my Savior,” he said. “Basketball will be there in two years, as well. … I feel that’s really important in my life before I go through the rest of my life.
“It’s the foundation for it.”
REST OF ALL-REGION TEAM
Kaden Perry, Battle Ground
Gonzaga commit did it all on offense and defense ends to get Tigers back to Tacoma Dome. Avenged 23.7 points, 15.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocks.
Kyle Gruhler, Skyview
Northwest Nazarene signee led the Storm back to the 4A state tournament. Averaged 20.5 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 assists a game.
Mario Herring, Evergreen
Breakout season for 3A GSHL MVP. Averaged 13 points, 11 rebound to lead Plainsmen to first league title, 3A state tournament.