WALLA WALLA - This time last year, the Wa-Hi boys were sitting pretty with a first-round home match against Moses Lake in the first round of the District 5/6 Tournament, while the girls faced a long drive to Wenatchee for their postseason opener.
After battling to a second-place Columbia Basin Big Nine finish this season, the Wa-Hi girls will instead have a bye Friday night and host the winner of a match between Moses Lake and Wenatchee Saturday night at 7 p.m.
The boys, on the other hand, face back-to-back treks to central Washington Friday and Saturday nights - should they win Friday night, of course. They face Moses Lake Friday night and Davis (of Yakima) gets the winner of that match.
Should the Blue Devil girls lose in the second round, they will have home-court advantage in a series of loser-out games, including a play-in with a Greater Spokane League team, if necessary.
But, Wa-Hi girls coach Jill Meliah said she would rather win the old-fashioned way: straight up the middle.
"Our goal is to make it to state," Meliah said. "I'd really like to win on Saturday and win the championship, but at least if we go the back way it will be through our home court, which will be nice."
With travel times for Wenatchee and any GSL teams making the trek to Walla Walla ranging from three to four hours, it should make for a significant home-court advantage.
"I think when you look at Wenatchee having to travel all the way down to Walla Walla, then it really is an advantage," Meliah said. "When you look at the GSL too, if they have to travel, then they're really not used to that. So it really is helpful."
The Blue Devil girls (9-3 CBBN 4A, 14-6 overall) looked to be in a bind after losing senior guard Maddie Jacobson to a torn ACL in a 54-51 loss to Richland Jan. 24, but the surprise of the season has been underclassmen stepping up.
Freshman guard Mikayla Ferenz has become an offensive threat as the season progressed, including a 17-point performance Saturday against Chiawana.
"Mikayla Ferenz has really stepped up and started scoring some more points," Meliah said. "We always knew she had the capability to score and now I think she's finally having that confidence in herself."
Also stepping into the void Jacobson left is freshman guard Maddy Sirmon, who, although is listed as a guard, starts at the post.
"We threw her into the spot when Jacobson went down," Meliah said. "She's really found herself and her game in the last few games. She can play all over the place. We start her down low and we can move her down to the guard position quite a bit."
No matter how the district tournament - and possibly the state tournament - pans out, the Blue Devils should be well served by the depth on their bench. Meliah said Wa-Hi regularly plays all 12 girls, as opposed to some teams which rely on production from only seven or eight.
"I've really been pleased about our bench play because it seems like someone different has stepped up every game," Meliah said.
The Wa-Hi boys (5-7, 9-11) finish a somewhat inconsistent season on a high note. The Blue Devils finished the regular season with a 76-54 trouncing of CBBN No. 3 Chiawana at home Saturday night and a 53-37 victory over last-place Eisenhower Jan. 31.
Wa-Hi makes up part of the muddled middle of the CBBN 4A boys division, with Wa-Hi, Moses Lake and Wenatchee all tied for fourth place. Third-seeded Chiawana is just one win past the middle at 6-6.
That played into some late-night bracketology confusion Saturday night, as word coming out of the CBBN was that Wa-Hi would host Moses Lake Friday in the first round of districts. However, Wenatchee Athletic Director B.J. Kuntz, who chairs the CBBN, told the Union-Bulletin she originally misapplied the tie-breaker criteria.
In previous years, a tie was broken solely by a school's wins against quality opponents.
With wins against Chiawana, Wa-Hi had the best strength-of-schedule out of the three schools tied for fourth place, and so it was originally announced Wa-Hi would host the first round of the tournament.
This season, however, the CBBN added a layer to the equation which comes before the strength-of-schedule test: head-to-head records.
By that measure, Moses Lake was 3-1, Wenatchee was 2-2 and Wa-Hi was 1-3.
The Blue Devils faced the Chiefs twice this season and lost twice, a 56-54 overtime heartbreaker Dec. 17 and a 64-48 loss Jan. 21. in Moses Lake.
In the game Jan. 21, the Chiefs held Wa-Hi to just 18-of-46 shooting from the field.
"They like to pack in the zone," Wa-Hi boys coach John Golden said of the Chiefs. "They really try to take the 3 away. They really made us commit from the outside and we didn't share the ball and we didn't shoot baskets. Kids are starting to share the ball and play our best basketball and gain a lot of confidence. I think if we take that with us Friday night, it'll be a different story."
Freshman forward Tanner Cranor (6-foot-6) has been a part of the turn around for Wa-Hi, Golden said. He joins a strong, but vertically challenged, front court consisting of Rob Ferenz, Kyle Jameson and Sam Arias.
"He's come a long ways," Golden said of Cranor's progression. "He's been playing really well the last few games and gave us an inside presence, which is nice. He's been someone we can go to and he's improved quit a bit."
In the January loss to Moses Lake, Cranor was limited to just seven points. However, he posted a team-leading 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the floor when the Blue Devils ran roughshod over Chiawana Saturday.
"He's (Cranor) starting to figure out how to use his height," Golden said. "Coach (Chris) Ferenz has worked hard with him all year and we're starting to see an improvement."
Add it all up, and Wa-Hi may just have what it takes to battle through the opening weekend of the district tournament.
"We're playing the best we've played right now, which is good," Golden said. "We've got a lot of confidence from how we've been playing recently and I think that's going to carry over (to the postseason)."
Tickets for Saturday's girls game are $6 for adults and $4 for students and seniors. Passes and ASB cards are not accepted. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.; gates open at 6 p.m.