DAYTON - Dayton hasn't won a basketball state championship in 17 years (since 1995, when the current iteration of the Bulldogs were still in diapers or unborn).
But with a senior-heavy roster and a balanced attack, the Bulldogs have their best chance of repeating that feat since then as they embark on a trip to the Spokane Arena for just their second time in school history.
The Bulldogs, ranked fifth in the final AP poll, carry a 23-1 record into the WIAA state Class 2B quarterfinals where they face No. 7 Toutle Lake Thursday and have, at times, looked unbeatable this season.
But the Ducks (20-4), which earned a state berth after waltzing past Shoreline Christian, 76-41, in the Southwest regional, present Dayton possibly its toughest test yet.
"It will be our toughest challenge besides Waitsburg-Prescott (which beat Dayton 51-44 on Jan. 30)," Dayton coach Roy Ramirez said of the 5:30 p.m. match. "W-P always plays us tough, but when you get up into that eight-team bracket, it doesn't matter who you draw, it's going to be tough.
Longtime fans of the Bulldogs may recognize Toutle Lake - they were victims of Dayton in both the football and basketball state championships in 1994-95 - but little else is known about the Fighting Ducks, and Toutle Lake coach Eric Swanson wasn't planning on enlightening any Dayton fans or coaches when the Union-Bulletin called.
"No comment," Swanson replied when asked about his team.
He did share his team's starters: Jeremy Fuller, Connor Vickaryous, Anthony Heintzman, Zack Hayes and Austin Hoffman - the tallest of which is 6-foot-3 Heintzman.
"Their starting five aren't big, but they are aggressive," Ramirez said. "Out of the eight teams at the state tournament, three teams (Adna, Toutle Lake and Wahkiakum) are from down there (WIAA District 4). That tells you how tough their league is."
For Dayton, the state tournament represents the last hurrah for a senior class comprised of Jacob McCleary, Colton Bickelhaupt, Joey Schlachter, Hayden Fullerton, Garett Turner and Kroft Sunderland that has played together since second grade.
"Ever since we first started (we've wanted to win a state championship)," point guard Bickelhaupt said. "When we'd watch the high school games, we'd say that's where we want to be - up in Spokane battling for a state championship if we had the chance."
Bickelhaupt said the Bulldogs, seven of which saw action on the gridiron (including five of the six seniors), were motivated by their 5-4 football campaign last fall.
"Kind of having that good of a season since having not very good seasons in the past, it kind of sparked us going into basketball," he said. "It showed us that we can be as good as we want to be."
Despite the approaching end of their high school basketball careers and the end of one of the school's most successful seasons ever, Bickelhaupt said he and the other seniors didn't pay it much heed.
"We kind of take both (the end of their prep careers and successful season) into perspective," Bickelhaupt said. "It gives you that edge from playing like it could be your last time, but we don't think about it that much and just go out and have fun."
And Bickelhaupt, who is a distributor again at point guard after quarterbacking the Bulldogs in football, has plenty of weapons to use on the court.
"We all feel like we can score the basketball," he said of his teammates, "and we feel like we have a good balance and we know who to get the ball to at the right time."
"Offensively, I think we're really well balanced," Ramirez said. "We've got our two bigs (6-3 Sunderland and 6-2 Schlachter) and the last game (a 59-41 victory over Riverside Christian in the regional tournament Friday), Kroft was in foul trouble and Joey took up the slack. We're just really balanced and so for us it's just sharing the ball and getting it to the open man."
Kroft, who averages 12 points a game, was limited to just one bucket in the victory while Schlachter nearly doubled his scoring at 14.
"It's really nice," Ramirez said of Dayton's balance. "Defenses can't focus on just one guy. As much as everyone likes to focus on Garett (Turner), one game he had four or five (points) and Hayden (Fullerton) had 30, so it makes it really nice that teams can't focus on just one guy."
Turner, a 5-11 guard, has been the Bulldogs' most consistent weapon, scoring 20 points per game and doing so in a variety of ways.
"He's not just a scorer," Ramirez said. "He averages four or five assists a game. He goes to the hoop hard and shoots the 3. He does all of that. He's just an all around player."
Fullerton, a 6-2 guard, brings 12-to-14 points per game, Ramirez estimated, and scored 16 points against Riverside Christian.
Should Dayton advance past Toutle Lake, the bracket is no less merciless in the semifinals. Dayton could face the winner of No. 6 La Conner and ninth-ranked Colfax Friday at 7:15 p.m.
A loss would put Dayton into a loser-out bracket for fourth and sixth place. Should Dayton make it to the championship game Saturday at 3 p.m., it faces the spectre of first-ranked Northwest Christian (Colbert) or even No. 8 Lake Roosevelt, which features 6-foot-8 post Ty Egbert, who almost single-handedly demolished Waitsburg-Prescott in its regional match.
Regardless of who they face, however, the Bulldogs aren't going to be happy just making the trip to Spokane - they want hardware.
"When they were little we talked about goals, and even then it was to win a state championship," Ramirez said of the seniors on his team. "Even in sixth and seventh grade they wanted to do that. They're happy with what they've accomplished, but also we're not going up there just happy to be there - we're going up there to win the darn thing if we can."