The celebration in the game's aftermath was sedate but heartfelt, yet none of the emotions gave away the truth that, for Columbia High's girls basketball program, this was a moment a long time in the making.
Perhaps the muted response was because the victory CHS scored to earn its first state Class 1A tournament berth in 14 years wasn't a blowout.
Maybe, more simply, it was because the Bruins were relieved they had survived another SWW District loser-out battle, that the pressure they'd played under the last three weeks was off and they could just relax and enjoy their accomplishment.
Either way, the Bruins' 39-26 win last Thursday in Centralia told affiliated and unaffiliated basketball fans alike everything they needed to know about what makes the unsung team tick.
Against Montesano, Columbia made a defining statement about itself--we may be banged up, we may be tired, but we've got nothing to lose--and found a way to win.
Playing to a form Bruins Coach Mike Yarnell has come to expect (playing an in-your-face defense that creates steals and turnovers, and lead to easy baskets), Columbia wore Montesano down, then put on a strong closing finish.
In brief, it was a total team effort: from junior Shannon McNallan scoring a season-high 10 points, to junior Ericka Ziegler swiping balls in the open court, to seniors Jenny Pulido and Kelsey Kidd relentlessly pounding the backboards, to sophomores Lacey Kruse and Michelle McMillen giving the Bruins' energy and production off the bench.
On top of that, the Bruins played with veteran poise after having a nine-point fourth-quarter lead trimmed to four with just over 4 minutes remaining.
Columbia met Montesano's last challenge by clamping down defensively and attacking its own basket.
The result was a 9-0 run that began at the 3:49 mark, when Pulido rebounded a missed free throw by Kidd and put it back for a 32-26 CHS lead. The surge concluded with a free throw and basket by Kidd and two free throws each by senior Chelan Weiler and Kruse.
The effort given by Weiler, who played with a sore left knee for the second time (she sustained the injury late in the first half of CHS's tourney opener on Feb. 15), epitomized Columbia's gritty play.
Constrained by the injured knee, CHS's point guard still made her presence felt. Playing under control, she picked her spots to drive and got to the free-throw line three times. She finished with seven points (5/6 FTs).