After posting a 2-12 league record last year, the last thing the members of the Hood River Valley boys basketball team need to hear is that they are the youngest, least-experienced club in the Intermountain Conference.
Just four varsity players from last year’s squad return for second-year head coach Phil Vesel. And the word around the league that the senior class will dominate.
Last year’s Class 4A state player of the year Maarty Leunen guides the 2003 state champion Redmond Panthers, while all-state running back Matt Sieverson leads an experienced Bend High starting five.
Pendleton and Hermiston are always in the playoff hunt, and the remaining Central Oregon schools — Summit, Mountain View and Crook County — also appear to have improved.
So where does that leave Vesel and the Eagles? Hanging out by the back door waiting to sneak in.
“No one expects us to do anything because we finished 2-12 last year and are returning the least amount of experience,” Vesel said. “But if we focus only on ourselves, we will be successful.”
Vesel spoke about the importance of having realistic expectations, and instead of concentrating on wins and losses, the team must focus on reaching its potential through hard work and court discipline.
“If everything came together for us this year, we could make the playoffs,” Vesel said. “It wouldn’t be realistic for us to say we’re going to win a league title, but it is realistic to say we’re going to battle hard every night.
“Our goal is to compete down to the wire in every game. And if we do that, I believe we will be in the playoff hunt.”
For that to happen, Vesel will need enormous contributions from his six seniors — Pete Dills, Brian Crosswhite, Todd Price, Paul Kline, Andrew Snyder and Jeremy Belcher — as well as from juniors Dennis Methvin and Bryan Williams.
Of that group, only Dills and Crosswhite saw significant varsity time in 2002-03, which could make for a sharp learning curve early in the season.
“We’re going to need everyone to contribute in order to win games in this league,” Vesel said. “We have to do the little things every night, and based on the level of commitment I’ve seen so far in practice, I would say we’re getting closer.”
Vesel added that he plans to stick with an eight- or nine-man rotation, and give younger players such as Shea Wooten, Kody Delnick and K.C. Christensen a chance to grow more at the JV level.
“All of those guys are going to be in the mix,” Vesel said. “One thing I like about this team is our versatility. One through four are basically interchangeable, so we are going to be able to use a number of different lineups for different situations.”
Heading into Friday’s opener with Aloha, the Eagles’ starting five is likely to include Crosswhite at the post, Kline and Belcher at the forwards, Dills at shooting guard and Methvin at point guard.
Snyder, Price and Williams will also play crucial roles off the bench for the Eagles, who are looking to sneak up on the rest of the deep and very talented IMC.
“It’s tough because we are just now starting to develop our talent,” Vesel said. “That’s why our seniors are going to be key for us. Good team chemistry is going to be very important, and I think we have a solid overall character this year.”
Vesel added that he has been pleased with Crosswhite’s willingness to take the leadership role, teaching younger players how to get position in the lane and dive on the floor for every loose ball.
“Brian is excited to be a role model this year,” Vesel said. “One of the reasons I used him so much last year is that he worked hard every minute he was on the court. He is willing to sacrifice his body for the team, and he has really become a leader by example.”
Crosswhite is the only returning starter from last year’s squad, which was at its best when point guard Andy Holmson was at his best.
This year, that responsibility is going to fall on Methvin, who has run the point effectively for both the freshman and JV squads the past two years.
Price will also bring the ball up the court, along with Dills and Wooten. But Vesel has given the early nod to Methvin, a midseason varsity call-up last year who occasionally spelled Holmson late in games.
“Dennis plays smart and doesn’t force things,” Vesel said. “He is quick on defense and can find guys in the lane, so we are hoping he can jumpstart us a bit.”
Meanwhile, Dills, with his silky outside jump shot, may be asked to assume the primary scoring duties for the Eagles, who didn’t have a player average more than 12 points per game in 2002-03 (Holmson, 11.8 ppg).
Vesel expects Price to contribute more once he returns from a foot injury suffered during the soccer season. Belcher should also help shoulder some of the scoring load, while Kline, Snyder and Williams will handle the banging inside along with Crosswhite.
“We have a number of good rebounders this year, so it will be interesting to see if that part of our game improves over last year,” Vesel said.
“But I would say that the biggest difference this year is that all the guys are on the same page. We have a strong character group that wants to work hard. And I think that will help us stay in every game.”
The Eagles will be tested early on with games against Clackamas, Sandy and David Douglas. They will then travel to Gresham for the Barlow Holiday Invitational before starting the league season at home against Redmond and Bend on Jan. 9-10.
“All we really want is to achieve our potential,” Vesel said. “And I think if we do that, this season will be a lot of fun.”