by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he previous night's victory, like so many others in a winning streak that has reached 54 games, was executed in cold-hearted, almost cruel, fashion by thick, muscular young men who could easily pass for a small-college basketball team -- or even a certain pro team.
"Are you guys the Harlem Globetrotters?" a young woman asked a group of Ferris High School players decked out in warm-up gear as they wandered about a Tri-Cities shopping mall prior to the Class 4A Eastern Regional title game last Saturday.
Naturally, the Saxons won that night, albeit in overtime, against Shadle Park. The way the Saxons figure it, why should that game be any different than the 53 other games they've played the past two seasons?
"To win anything 53 times in a row, that's pretty good," Ferris coach Don Van Lierop says. "I was telling my wife, if I could beat my (grade-school) son in ping-pong 53 straight times..."
Don't tempt the Saxons, or they might go after the state ping-pong title. The Spokane squad has followed a 29-0 season and state championship with a 25-0 season and No. 1 ranking heading into the state 4A tournament, which opened Wednesday in Tacoma.
Many of the Saxons also played on the football team that went 12-0 last fall before losing to Bothell, Van Lierop's alma mater, in the state semifinals.
"They've always had that moxie; they're all just winners," Van Lierop says.
The Saxons can score inside or outside, play a physical or finesse game, wear you out physically with their up-tempo offense or wear you out mentally by playing nostril-to-nostril defense with their match-up zone.
"We know that chances are pretty good if we (start fast), we're going to put teams in the ground," senior post DeAngelo Casto says.
"Talent-wise, we're all pretty gifted," senior forward Jared Karstetter says. "But the best aspect we have on the team is that after playing with these guys so long, I know they'll compete no matter what the situation. They'll play hard until the end of the game."
All five starters are seniors along with fiery sixth man Beau Brett, the nephew of Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett. The point guard, three-year starter Shawn Stockton, is the nephew of future Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton.
"I trust Shawn before I trust my own friends," Van Lierop says.
Stockton, the most valuable player at last year's state tournament, plays a heady and unselfish game that brings to mind the famous uncle with whom he occasionally practices.
"We don't care if 'D' (Casto) has 30 points or Jared has 30 points," Stockton says. "We have one goal, which is to win."
Casto, a springy, long-armed shot blocker who is being recruited fervently by Washington State, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington despite academic questions, won an appeal to rejoin the Saxons after he briefly attended Franklin High in Seattle last fall. Casto's family history is sketchy, and he lives with volunteer assistant coach Dave Rath after living with teammate Erick Cheadle last season.
"Stability is kind of what I've been lacking pretty much through my whole life," says Casto, an all-state player last season. "It's good to finally just be blessed with people who care."
Van Lierop talks at length about Casto's gentle nature, particularly with children. Casto seems certain to play in college, joining Stockton (Montana basketball), Karstetter (WSU football), Brett (USC baseball), Cheadle (Western Washington football) and Jeff Minnerly (Eastern Washington football).
"It's a privilege to coach good kids," Van Lierop says. "When you've got the talent that they do and the work ethic, it's been a dream.
"They come early and stay late. They're dependable. The chemistry; we really, truly don't care who scores as long as we score."