KENNEWICK — It was a great day in May of 2008 when Bradyn Leyde got his first head coaching job with the Kennewick Lions.
It was not, however, a great year for the former Hanford assistant.
The Lions finished 1-19 the following season. A win on the final day of the season was the only thing that prevented an embarrassing goose egg in the victory column that year.
"Sometimes if you don't experience struggle, you don't really appreciate success in life," Leyde said. "I don't ever want to forget what it was and what we needed to do to get out of it."
Fortunately for Leyde and Kennewick High School, help was on the way.
While Kennewick was toiling on the court four years ago, a group of freshmen were making big plans for their own future and that of the Lions program.
Another 1-19 season wasn't part of that design.
"That was hard to watch. At the same time, we knew we had a core group that had been playing together since the seventh grade," said Lions senior guard Brandon "Paco" Pocasangre, who teamed with fellow seniors Reggie Clinton, Domach Domach, Bryce Leavitt and Luiz Santiago to form the heart of coach Tom Higley's AAU team.
"We were making it to the championship in most of the tournaments we played in," said Leavitt, who is second in the CBBN 3A in scoring at 19.0 points a game. "We played pretty well together. We had good chemistry on and off the court."
Clinton, Domach, Leavitt and Santiago all played supporting roles on varsity as sophomores, and Kennewick began showing some promise for the future. The Lions quadrupled their win total at 4-18 the next season and reached the district playoffs. Last season they finished 9-12 and flashed the winning potential that has flourished in a big way this season.
With their senior core in place, Kennewick (15-3 overall, 10-2 CBBN 3A) remains just one game behind third-ranked Kamiakin and cracked the Associated Press 3A poll this week at No. 10. The Lions have also clinched just their third winning season since 1990, a vision shared by each of the seven seniors on the team.
"Me and Bryce used to talk about that all the time. We knew we would have a complete team if we had everybody playing every day, and we did," said Clinton, who is sixth in the league in scoring at 15.4 points a game. "Our team can have somebody go off for 20 points every single game. We all know we're going to get our points. It doesn't matter. We just want to win."
They recently picked up two of their biggest wins of the season, beating Hanford 78-72 last Friday and following that up with a 63-51 win over then-No. 2 Kamiakin.
Domach, a Sudanese-born post player who only started playing the game as a seventh grader, had his biggest weekend yet, holding his own on the low block against some high-caliber talent in the paint. He scored 17 points against Hanford and then a game-high 18 against Kamiakin. At the same time, he helped keep the Falcons' Joe Douglas, then Justin Pedley and Zach En'Wezoh of Kamiakin, all under their season scoring averages.
"I got a lot of help from the sophomore coach (Oliver Browning). He really helped me on post defense," said Domach, who averages 11.2 points a game.
It's the guards who provide most of the offense -- about 75 percent of it, in fact -- but defense is a big part of the equation, too. That's where Stetson Plew and Shaun Smith come in. But their presence on the team means much more than just a body on defense.
According to coach Leyde, Plew is the team jokester ("He's got a mean halfcourt shot, too," said Leyde), keeping things light when levity is appropriate.
Smith, a nephew of coach Browning, transferred in as a sophomore and, despite a shy nature, was easily accepted by his new teammates.
"Sports opened up a chance for me to meet new people," Smith said. "Bryce still comes over to my house and tells me to get out of my room."
The chemistry that has served as the backbone of the team doesn't stop on the hardwood. The faith and trust that flows between them on the court has also enriched each players life in a different way.
When Pocasangre's little sister, Emilia, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last summer, Brandon put sports and school on the back burner to attend to his family. The response from his team was unconditional support.
"I was in the hospital in Seattle with my sister, and the first person who came to visit was Reggie. You never forget something like that," Pocasangre said. "She's doing good now. She'll come to games and tells me how she cheers for Bryce and Reggie. She doesn't even tell me that she's cheering for me."
When Santiago was a freshman, he found the emotional support he needed from his teammates after his parents went through a painful divorce.
"Divorce is always tough on a 14-year-old. Any kid is going to blame himself," said Santiago, a 3-point specialist averaging 9.4 points a game. "There were times I didn't want to do anything at all. I wanted to stay at home and waste my life. But I had great people here who wanted to help me."
That's what Kennewick has been about lately. The Lions have come a long way in four seasons.
But the lessons they've learned, thanks to a dedicated and unselfish group of seniors, will last them a lifetime.
* Jack Millikin; 509-582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org