Kolby Baird was already in celebration mode before the shot even went in. He just knew Ben Janssan was going to deliver the game winner. “I was already up off the bench when he put the shot up,” a beaming Baird said about Janssan’s successful 3-pointer which gave the Centralia boys’ basketball team a key 49-46 victory over Black Hills. “There was no doubt in my mind it wasn’t going in.”
It’s a familiarity and confidence that wasn’t present at the start of the season for the Tigers. Centralia opened the year losing six out of their first nine games as they suffered through some growing pains, struggling to find their identity.
Behind a strong senior class, it’s safe to say these Tigers have hit their stride.
In a pivotal 2A Evergreen Conference game on the road against the Wolves, Janssan’s long-range bucket with two seconds remaining in the contest proved to be the dagger, helping Centralia take sole possession of second place in the conference – an impressive feat for a team that started the season in transition.
“It’s taken us a little while to get used to playing together. We needed some time to learn each other’s quirks,” said Tigers Head Coach Kyle Donahue, “but I think we’re finally getting there.”
There’s the transfer from four miles away, and the other from half a world away. There are the returning varsity players and those who appeared in JV games last year.
Donahue, a year after serving as interim head coach following a leave of absence from long-time coach Ron Brown, has molded this group into a cohesive unit, one which now truly believes they can compete with anyone.
The bulk of this year’s roster is made up of seniors – six to be exact. Joining the aforementioned Baird and Janssan is Tyler Ashmore, Jackson Grimm, Kolby Sharp and Connor Wasson. Each has played a significant role in helping the Tigers turn their season around.
The group holds the distinction of being the first Centralia senior class to start a season not coached by Brown, who retired following last season, since 1960. It is a daunting task but one that this group has turned into a success story.
“It’s a really good group to start off my career with,” said Donahue, who served as Brown’s JV coach before taking over the program midseason last year. “It’s a fantastic group of kids. They are hard-working, great student athletes. I couldn’t ask for a better group to start out with.”
Baird, Wasson and Ashmore, who transferred from W.F. West prior to the start of his junior year, are the three returning players with varsity experience. Grimm and Sharp have made the transition after playing on JV last season, while Janssan is an exchange student from South Australia’s capital Adelaide.
“We had a lot to adjust to at the start of the season,” Wasson said. “It’s hard to replace a legendary coach like Coach Brown but we do a lot of the same stuff. Donahue was our JV coach before he became our varsity coach so that made it a really easy transition for Kolby (Baird) and myself. We just needed to get comfortable playing with each other.”
Despite going to W.F. West during his freshman and sophomore years, Ashmore has about as much family ties to the Tigers than anyone. His father, Scott, played for Brown in the early 1980s. His uncle, Doug Ashmore, is the girls basketball coach and teaches at the school, while another uncle, Rex Ashmore, guided Centralia to the state 2A baseball championship in 2015.
“When I came over my junior year, the chemistry was already there,” said Ashmore about the team’s off-the-court relationships. “We’re all best friends. We basically don’t leave each other’s sides.”
That includes the team’s newest edition, Janssan, who despite being from a different hemisphere quickly meshed with the team, first off the court and later on.
“We immediately had that connection,” said Ashmore, the team’s leading scorer who netted a season-high 29 points in the Tigers’ win over Washougal. “We have a lot of the same interests. Basketball is just one of them.”
“Ben is just a fantastic basketball player,” Donahue said. “We have that love/hate relationship at times because he has the ball in his hands a lot. Sometimes I’m high fiving him. Other times I’m screaming at him, but he’s been such a great addition to our program.”
Now, after building plenty of momentum, the Tigers will look to carry it over into the postseason.
“We just feel like we can always compete,” Wasson said. “We feel like it doesn’t matter who we are playing, we can be in any game.”