SPOKANE — The Wahkiakum girls traveled to Spokane in style, swapping more than a six-hour drive for a quick flight across the state where a limo awaited them, as is tradition for Mule teams traveling to the state tournament.

Through it all, the 10th-seeded Mules were upset against No. 2 Warden in a losing game Wednesday at Spokane Arena. But despite a strong first half, the Mules couldn’t hang on to finish the upset and stay alive, falling to the Cougars 55-40.

Things went as planned at first for Wahkiakum. The Mules focused on defense and slowed the Cougars offense in the first half, allowing them to take a 20-19 lead at intermission.

“I think they really struggled with our defense in the first half,” Wahkiakum coach Rob Garrett said. “We were able to protect the paint and not have that easy exterior look.”

The Mules were focused on slowing down Warden‘s fearsome Madsen sisters – Jaryn and Lauryn – as well as Kiana Rios.

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“We just played aggressive defense on those three and every time they caught up to us we had help there, so they struggled with that,” Garrett said.

But Wahkiakum’s first-half successes quickly faded in the third quarter. The Cougars came out of the break and raced 12-0 to take a double-digit lead in the blink of an eye and forced Garrett to burn two timeouts in the first two and a half minutes of the half. time.

“We left them a few easy shots and they’re great shooters, so you can’t let them,” Garrett said. “They’ve supported us at times, which they’re really good at. We just had a few outages.

The Mules stabilized on defense but the offense failed to recover in the third, scoring just six points and allowing the Cougars to take a 38-26 lead in the fourth.

“We struggled to score. They’re a good defensive team, they’re in your face,” Garrett said. “I think we were tired. I know we play with seven, but it’s really five who get the majority of the minutes.

All five Mules starters scored over 28 minutes on the ground in Wednesday’s game, rarely giving them a chance to reset and refresh.

That allowed the Cougars to pounce on the tired Mules in the fourth, extending their lead to 19 as they finished the game.

Courtney Carlson led Wahkiakum with 10 points and five rebounds while Miya Kerstetter and Megan Leitz each added nine points for the Mules.

Jaryn Madsen warmed up in the second half for Warden and finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds to lead all players in both categories.

Wahkiakum’s run at State hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination. They had to replace much of last season’s roster and had to replace the production of two college-level players in Jansi Merz and Paige Mace, but they still fought their way into the hunt for Spokane.

“I know how badly these five want it, how hard they work and how much time they put in, so I knew there was a chance,” Garrett said of his starting lineup. “But there were a lot of games early on where I was like, ‘Man, if we can get to Spokane, that would be amazing with that group right now. “”

The starting five had the drive, but the Mules needed more body to field a full squad. That’s where the reserves came in after being pulled straight from the halls of high school — and one from college — to help fill out the roster.

“There aren’t a ton of kids who will be able to be so selfless and able to see the big picture and help those kids live their dream,” Garrett said. “We are extremely grateful to these three.”

At the end of the long term, Garrett reflected on the journey and resilience of this team, allowing him to enjoy some precious family time in Spokane.

“I’m just grateful. I am grateful for each one of them,” he said. “For me, selfishly, to be able to bring my two-month-old daughter to this pitch is a special moment that I will remember forever.”

Garrett also thanked the great community of Cathlamet. While not all 621 residents were able to attend, their generosity is a big part of why the Mules cross the state in style every time they qualify for the big dance.

“It’s a testament to this community and how much they love and support their children,” he said.

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