SAMMAMISH — The silence was jarring.
Shaun Samuels, maybe best known for being the Seahawks’ official DJ, didn’t want to hear a sound after coaching Eastside Catholic girls basketball games the last two years. He joined Katie Farr’s staff as an assistant, and the duo’s first season was 2017-18.
The Crusaders were winless in 18 games that season. And the following season they were 5-14.
“There were a lot of long car rides from here back home in silence,” said Malia Samuels of attending most games and practices with her father. Then a budding seventh-grade basketball player, she dreamed of what she’d do playing for her dad and Farr at Eastside.
“He really tried to get the girls from that time to think about other things than basketball and make sure they had fun,” Malia continued. “But it’s hard to have fun when you’re losing.”
Malia and her pack of freshmen proved to be the antidote. Without a single upperclassman, Eastside kicked its Metro League doormat status to become one of the top squads in Washington. The Crusaders (24-1) head into the Class 3A state girls basketball tournament with the state’s top RPI.
“Sam and I talk about it a lot,” Farr said, referring to Shaun. “Getting through those seasons was trying on who you are as a coach, like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ Then you realize what you have in front of you and just keep coaching through it.
“This year is a lot of fun; winning is fun. But the fun part of it is seeing the girls grow because they’re so young. They thought they knew it all, but we’re like ‘this is a long season.’ Watching the ‘a-ha’ moment and understand why (is rewarding).”
Athletic success at Eastside Catholic always comes with scrutiny. The private school nestled in the tony Sammamish Plateau can draw students from a 50-mile radius. With facilities that mirror a small college, strong academics and an emphasis on religion, Eastside is attractive for many families with gifted student athletes.
The Crusaders have dominated in football — winning four of the past six state titles — and is surging in boys and now girls basketball.
Eyebrows are raised at Farr and Shaun, because the latter also coaches his daughter’s AAU team, the Northwest Greyhounds. And four of Malia’s teammates are on Eastside’s roster in freshmen Izzy Sullivan, Mjracle Sheppard, and Amelie Sitterud and sophomore ZaZa Walton, who transferred from Kentlake.
Last summer, Shaun led the Greyhounds’ Team Blue 2023 to the Jr. NBA Global Championship’s northwest regional title. Malia, Sullivan, Sheppard, and Sitterud were on the squad that went 5-1 in the tournament in Orlando, Fla., reaching the Final Four.
Washington Interscholastic Activities rules allow for coaching during the summer.
Given the amount of practice and time spent together before the 2019-20 high-school season, of course the Greyhounds now in Crusaders clothing went undefeated in Metro League play.
Eastside won the Metro girls title for the first time in program history and qualified for the state tournament for the first time since 2002. Led by Canadian transfer Sarah McKay, a 6-foot-7 center who went on to play at Indiana, the Crusaders were Class 3A state tournament runners-up that year.
“We’ve surprised ourselves, but we also expected it to happen,” said Malia of the historic run. “We talked it up, even over the summer and in the hallways and at lunch, we talk it up. Put it into existence.”
Garfield senior Meghan Fiso can only smile when facing the youthful Eastside team. The formation of the group is nearly identical to her experience at West Seattle before transferring after her junior season.
The Wildcats had four AAU teammates together on the roster, including Fiso. Their best season was 2018 when West Seattle won the Class 3A SeaKing district title and placed third in the state tournament. Former teammates in Grace Sarver (Washington State), Jasmine Gayles (Northern Colorado) and Kelsey Lenzie (Portland) are college freshmen while Fiso is a Michigan commit.
“It’s pretty much exactly like West Seattle, honestly,” said Fiso, who did have a different AAU coach. “It’s going to be really fun to see what they do after this season. You can’t even like hate on them because they are a really good, really talented team.”
The joy Eastside emanates from playing could melt any hate anyway. Malia has a megawatt smile that matches her electric skill in running the offense and sparking defensive turnovers.
She has the instinctive ability take over a game to ensure a win or create ways to make her teammates shine. Walton does so off passes in the paint. Sullivan is ready with the three-pointers from the wing. Sheppard and Sitterud create magic with Samuels on the fast break.
Metro League coaches voted Samuels their MVP and Sheppard their Defensive Player of the Year.
Walton leads four players averaging double figures in scoring with 15.4 points per game. Samuels has hands in every category, averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.4 steals per game.
Now if the car rides home are quiet, it’s to get a break from all the noise celebrating another win.
“We thought our youth would catch up with us, but these girls are so seasoned,” Farr said. “It’s a little scary because they’re ready for challenges.”