Kettle Falls' state basketball appearances fuelled by uncle to nephew connection

Taylor Newquist
Sports Editor

Jim Potestio rode over 300 miles to Tacoma, crammed into the back of a 1967 Firebird as a senior guard on Kettle Falls’ 1969 basketball team—the second to make state in school history.
The Bulldogs would make state two of the next three years in 1970 and 1972. After that, they would have to wait 30 years to return. Potestio’s nephew, Greg Mace, would lead the team to do it.
Another 17 stateless years passed for Kettle Falls basketball. It was only fitting Mace’s nephew, Cade McKern, brought the Bulldogs back with the go-ahead 3-pointer to lift Kettle Falls over Lind-Ritzville/Sprague and clinch the regional round of the state tournament.
While Kettle Falls’ leagues, styles of play and state venues have changed over the years—this family was constant. You couldn’t tell the story of Bulldogs’ basketball without them.
Potestio was a spot-up corner specialist, before the time of the 3-point line. In 1969 he was the senior sixth man and knocked down free throws at a 85% clip.
That year, the Bulldogs defeated West Valley in the district tournament. Potestio said from that point things started getting serious. The coaches had to call a meeting in town hall.
“We were just small town America,” Potestio said. “We didn’t know nothing about state … we didn’t want to ride a bus to Tacoma, wherever that was, so they loaded us into the coaches’ vehicles. I got stuck in the back of a ‘67 Firebird and the back of those things was like a matchbox.”
The site of the tournament was the UPS Fieldhouse at Puget Sound University. The tournament program boasted, “nearly 40,000 fans will watch the 16 best Class A teams in the state perform in four days of exciting action.” Ticket prices were $1 for students and $1.50 to the public. The teams were: Castle Rock, Deer Park, Elma, Forks, Granger, Highland, Kettle Falls, Lynden Christian, Nooksack Valley, Omak, Onalaska, Port Townsend, Raymond, Tonasket, Waitsburg and White Pass.
Kettle Falls drew Nooksack Valley in the opening round of the tournament and lost 71-56. The Bulldogs went on to roll past Port Townsend 75-44 in the consolation round, followed by beating Tonasket 86-69. In the 5th place game, Waitsburg defeated Kettle Falls 79-67, giving the Bulldogs 8th—tied for the best finish in school history.
“We were a scoring machine,” Potestio said. “Without being too humble, I was one heck of a shooter. They had an offense built for me called ‘man in the corner’.”
Kettle Falls went on to make the state tournament in 1970 and 1972, losing all four of its games. While the Bulldogs were shaping up to be a small town basketball power, the run wouldn’t last. It’d be 30 years before they returned, and it’d take a special team to get there.
Greg Mace played differently than his uncle Potestio; Mace played with the ball in his hands. As a junior and senior in the 2002 and 2003 seasons, he scored over 1,000 points.
But it wasn’t just Mace that shared a connection to the state teams in the past. Brad Fredrickson, Mace’s partner guard’s dad and uncle had both made state. Sixth man Rodney Graves’ dad had also been on a state team.
“We had all these dads that had been to state and they started molding us really early,” Mace said. “We started playing AAU in the fourth grade and there were four of us at the time: Myself, Fredrickson, Cameron LeBret and Cody Slater. We were a pretty good group. We had a lot of hype around us.”
Mace and his teammates were three sport athletes and traveled around to varying basketball tournaments. When they got into high school, Mace and Slater started seeing varsity time their freshman year. By their sophomore season, most of the class was on varsity. Kettle Falls made the regional round in 2001, losing to Brewster, which has become a theme in Bulldogs basketball.
Kettle Falls played in the A State tournament in the Yakima SunDome Mace’s junior and senior seasons.
“What I remember about going to state, is how the whole town of Kettle Falls was so awesome,” Mace said. “The support we got, people came out, we had parades and it was really cool. I remember Chris Cowbrough put in the paper that ‘nobody was left in Kettle Falls’.”
The 2002 State A tournament was played from Feb. 27, to March 2. Kettle Falls drew Granger in the first round and dominated the Spartans with a 49-22 win that stood as the fewest points allowed in the A tournament for a number of years. The next game, the Bulldogs lost to Zillah 48-37 and then dropped the next consolation game to Orcas Island 66-54.
Kettle Falls returned in 2003 with 12 seniors. Mace suffered a sprained ankle in the first minute of the Bulldogs’ first league game. Freeman went on to win the league title, and edged the Bulldogs with league MVP Mace in double overtime of the district tournament championship.
“A lot of people at the time said it was one of the best high school basketball games they’d ever seen,” Mace said. “They had a guard Pat Love, who a lot of Freeman people thought should’ve been league MVP. We had some bad relations with Freeman at the time.”
Mace scored 34 points in the district championship, but it wasn’t enough, as Love nailed a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer to take the win.
“It was ruckus,” Potestio said. “I remember you [Mace] gave him a lot of room, because there was no way anyone was making that shot.”
The loss forced Kettle Falls into a play-in to make the state tournament, against Lake Roosevelt, who they easily defeated.
The problem came in the regional round, where Kettle Falls’ seeding that took a hit with a loss to Brewster, who went on to be crowned tournament champions.
In the opening round of state, the Bulldogs lost to Seattle Christian 63-48, who went on to beat Freeman 56-41 in the next round, and finished in second place after a 69-44 loss Brewster.
Kettle Falls defeated La Conner 53-50 and Orcas Island 67-39 in the consolation bracket, before losing to Bellevue Christian 61-48 to take 8th place.
Four of the five starters from the 2003 Bulldogs went on to play college basketball. Mace went to Walla Walla Community College, Fredrickson and Slater to Skagit Valley Community College, and Gabe Aubertin to Peninsula Community College.
“It was so awesome to be with my teammates and to make it to that point,” Mace said.
Another stretch of 17 years without a state appearance hung a cloud of perennial losing over the heads of the Bulldogs. It’d take another special senior class to bring them back to the state tournament. That brings us to Kettle Falls’ 2019-20 season.
The Bulldogs entered the year with seven seniors, led by two co-captains, Mace’s nephew McKern and Matt Thompson. McKern grew up with the game, being used as demonstration at Kettle Falls practices, when Mace was the boys head coach in the late 2000s.
McKern and Thompson started seeing varsity action by their freshman year. By their sophomore season, classmates Carter Matney and Morgan Keller entered into the rotation. Their first three seasons combined for a 21-45 overall and 11-32 league record, never finishing in the top half of the league standings. Despite their losing history, the senior Bulldogs were poised to return to state.
“When I started playing and was young Kettle was in a bad spot,” McKern said. “But hearing about Greg and Jim’s team being able to go to state made me want to be able to get there someday. It made me work to do what they did and follow in their footsteps.”
Kettle Falls opened the season with a 4-4 record, dropping its first two league games to Davenport and St. George’s. The Bulldogs went on to win all but one of their remaining league games, finishing second place in the Northeast 2B North with a 13-7 overall and 7-3 league record. Their work was far from done.
Kettle Falls hadn’t won a game in the district tournament since 2006. The Bulldogs dropped their first tournament game to Colfax 73-57. Things looked bleak. Kettle Falls would have to win it next three district tournament loser-outs to make the 2B State tournament at the Spokane Arena.
The first of those games was against Reardan, who the Bulldogs hadn’t played previously. Kettle Falls stormed out to a 32-21 lead at halftime, that was erased with a 20-2 run by the Indians in the third quarter. The Bulldogs were backed against the wall, trailing by seven at the start of the fourth quarter.
Kettle Falls dominated the fourth with a 23-9 run that gave the Bulldogs a 57-50 win. They did as the great, late North Carolina State head coach Jimmy Valvano once said, “survive and advance.” Thompson scored 22 and McKern was right behind him with 18. Potestio said it was the most excited he’d seen McKern after a win.
“It just turned into this one game at a time mentality,” McKern said. “Then we ended up at state and it was just unreal.”
Kettle Falls played Davenport in next, cruising in the second half to a 66-44 win. With each successive basket down the stretch, the Bulldogs bench, players and stands roared with increasing excitement. They all could see what was on the horizon. Just one game stood in their way.
Lind-Ritzville/Sprague was the opponent. The Broncos were the No.2 seed from the South, while the Bulldogs were the No.2 from the North. Both teams felt they were destined to break state droughts, as LRS hadn’t made a state tournament since 2009.
The Broncos were the favorites, having defeated Colfax two weeks earlier and taking undefeated Liberty to the brink in January. The game went back-and-forth, each team fighting for every point. LRS led by one at the start of the fourth quarter. After 1:20 minutes into the quarter, the lead grew to nine. Thompson’s shots that normally fell refused to go in and it looked as if Kettle Falls would come up just short of returning to the state tournament.
McKern came to the rescue. He scored 14 of the teams’ 16 fourth quarter points and scored the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:13 minutes remaining. Kettle Falls was going back to state; McKern said it was the best game of his career.
“It’s going to be a moment I never forget,” McKern said. “It felt like all of my hardwork and dedication paid off at that time. That was everything I was dreaming about since I was little.”
Mace wasn’t surprised one bit when he saw McKern’s late 3-pointer find the bottom of the net.
“Growing up the family always joked that he was a lot like me,” Mace said. “We compete in everything, all of the time.”
“Even when he was really little, he was always clutch. All the time. He’s hard to beat at anything, so it wasn’t surprising to me.”
Potestio said he was a little more worried, to the sound of laughter from his nephews.
“Actually I was,” Potestio said. “To be down nine points with five minutes left ... you know, he made one, then he made two ... then he made two back-to-backs and I’m thinking, ‘holy cow’.”
Kettle Falls went on to lose to Colfax in the district third place game 69-57. In the regional round of the state tournament, the Bulldogs defeated Darrington 47-35 to make it to the Spokane Arena.
Like Mace’s team had in the past, Kettle Falls drew the eventual champion Brewster, this time in a loser-out. They lost to the Bears 74-48. The last two minutes, all four of the Bulldogs’ senior starters were subbed off in an emotional fashion to the sound of cheers from a loud home crowd. While bitter-sweet, it was the moment McKern and all his teammates had dreamed of and fought so hard to achieve.
“It’s something you think about, but don’t really feel until you’re there,” McKern said of walking off the court for the last time. “Everything you’ve done, your run is over. But you’re going to remember that for the rest of your life.”