On February 22, 2019, a dejected Cashion Wildcat team sat inside the locker room at Hinton High School. Hobart had just ended the Wildcats season in the second round of the regional tournament. A promising season cut short. It was at that moment that the Wildcats made a promise. They wouldn't feel this pain again. Next year, the Wildcats would be in the state tournament.
Fast forward 379 days. The No. 2 Wildcats were facing elimination once again. Cashion fell in the Area Championship game to No. 6 Minco in a heartbreaker. The loss put Cashion in the win-or-go-home game against Calera in the Area Consolation Championship on Saturday. After the loss to Minco, Cashion Head Coach John Hardaway went home and immediately started scouting Calera. Around 3 a.m., Hardaway found the perfect way to defend Calera. It would be a defense the Wildcats hadn't run in four years.
"I got home around one and watched a couple of hours of film on Calera and fell asleep for a few hours and woke up and watched some more film," Hardaway said. "I was watching the film and I was texting our assistant coach that we need to run our old school, gapped out 2-1-2 zone. We haven't run it all year but when these seniors were in junior high, that's all we ran. It was a gem for us tonight."
The Wildcats held Calera to a season-low 26 points. While the Wildcat defense was doing its thing, the Cashion offense sputtered out of the gate in the first quarter. The Wildcats only managed to get out to a 12-6 lead after the first eight minutes. Then in the second quarter, Cashion's offense started to settle into a groove.
Leading 12-9 with 6:07 to go, Cashion got back-to-back-to-back three-pointers from Jonah Jenkins, Kaden LaFortune, and Vance Raney. That sparked a 20-6 run to close the half and put the Wildcats in front 32-14. The third quarter would be much like the first for Cashion, as the Wildcats would only score eight points in the frame but would still take a commanding 40-21 lead into the fourth.
Then Alex Nabavi became a walking bucket.
The senior ignited for 14-straight points, knocking down four straight three-pointers to help Cashion push its lead to 54-21 with five minutes to go in the game. Nabavi finished with a career-high 26 points and six 3's on the night.
"I'm so happy for Alex," Hardaway said. "He admitted he struggled against Minco last night and you could just sense it today. From the first minute that he walked into the classroom today, you could sense that he was going to hook it up and get after it. You could see it tonight he was going after everybody, that's just his personality. He's a bulldog and I was just beyond happy for him to have that moment in this game to get us to the state tournament. He's such a competitor and I wouldn't trade him for the world."
Behind Nabavi's outburst in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats routed Calera 61-26 to punch their ticket to the state tournament for the third time in school history. It's the first time Cashion will play in the state tournament since 1996.
"We knew winning last weekend in regionals was big because we knew that we weren't going to come here and lose twice," Hardaway said. "We knew that even if Friday didn't go our way, there was just no way that we were going to lose twice. I think our kids felt that way, too."
The No. 2 Wildcats are state bound. They will face No. 9 Hooker in the first round of the state tournament at Yukon High School at 3:30 p.m Thursday. The promise from last year has been fulfilled. Now they sit three wins away from a state title.
"We lost to two really good teams last year in regionals," Hardaway said. "You could just see the conviction in all of their faces and their tones when they said we were going to make it to state next year. I can remember those guys going to the fairgrounds last year and them watching Hennessey go all the way to the finals, a team they beat last year. They were sold on us going to state this year. They did all the work and it started the second we walked out of the locker room in Hinton after we lost to Hobart."