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'The run continues:' Auburn accepts invite to play in inaugural national tournament after WIAA Class 3A state title

Paragon Marketing Group is adding a national postseason tournament for NFHS state champions as a complement to long-running GEICO Nationals. Washington's 3A state title has accepted an invite.

Auburn's storied run isn't over yet. 

After winning the WIAA Class 3A state state championship on Saturday — its first in school history — the Trojans (27-2) have accepted an invitation to play in the inaugural State Champions Invitational in Florida April 7-9, a national high school basketball tournament and a branch-off of the GEICO Nationals.

The four-team tournament will be televised on ESPN networks.

"It gives us another month to be around each other and coach these kids," Auburn coach Ryan Hansen said. "I presented it to the team on Monday after school and their reaction was priceless, man. They were jumping around, so excited."

Auburn is the first school to announce its entry into the invite-only field, which will have a boys and girls bracket. Florida's Calvary Christian is widely expected to be in the field. The Eagles, the No. 6 team in the country in the SBLive/Sports Illustrated Power 25, repeated as 4A FHSAA state champions last week

Only teams that won state championships for in National Federation for High School Associations-run state tournaments qualified. 

A spokesperson for Paragon Marketing Group, the event organizers, told SBLive on Thursday it aims to announce the field Wednesday, March 16.

The State Champions Invitational takes place the weekend after GEICO Nationals. Only eight state associations allow its members schools to play in the GEICOs. As a response, Paragon announced the formation of the SCI, a new national culminating tournament for NFHS member schools in hopes to lure state associations like the CIF (California) and the UIL (Texas).

Auburn will become the latest WIAA state champion to play in a national postseason tournament. Rainier Beach (2014) and Garfield (2018) competed in the GEICO Nationals and Eastside Catholic (2018, 2019) and Graham-Kapowsin (2021) played in the GEICO State Championship Bowl series for football.

Auburn's invite came as a surprise to even Hansen.

As he was driving away from the Tacoma Dome after beating Rainier Beach 58-48 for the 3A title Saturday night, one of his assistant coaches posed the question: do you think we'll qualify for a national tournament?

With two losses — one to Garfield in the regular season and another to Mt. Spokane in the regional round — he was doubtful. Then the Trojans swept three schools from Seattle's vaunted Metro League, including an instant-classic overtime rematch with No. 1 Garfield in the quarterfinals, to claim the 3A crown.

The school received an email from WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman Monday morning outlining the invitation. Hoffman said the WIAA was supportive, but the decision would ultimately be up to the school and Auburn School District.

According to Hansen, Paragon Marketing Group is fully funding the trip — which includes flights, buses, lodging and meals for 21 people involved with the team, as well as $5,000 as a gift back to the program.

Hansen said the WIAA has allowed Auburn 10 practices before the tournament and the school district is petitioning for 15.

"Initially, there was concern that invited teams would gain a competitive advantage but the WIAA Executive Board eventually decided to allow participation for the full experience of travel, education related components and competition," Hoffman said.

Above all, the Trojans are excited to continue their run after bringing home their first state title in the school's more than 115-year history.

The state of Washington will get to watch on national television, just like it did when Graham-Kapowsin's football team shocked the nation with an upset over heavily-favorite Collins Hill (Ga.).

"Obviously we want to go and represent our school and the state of Washington and do that well," Hansen said. "I told the kids this is a no-pressure tournament, we’ve already done the work we’ve wanted to do. Let’s enjoy this last ride. I almost view it as we’re playing with house money. Let’s go out and enjoy the ride and compete.

"The run continues."

---Andy Buhler; @AndyBuhler.