Religious connotations seem appropriate for a basketball game featuring two Christian schools, an “Ark” and a pre-game prayer circle with both teams holding hands. For good measure, each roster had a Luke, one had a Matthew and there’s no doubt Mark and John were represented somewhere in the sweltering Baker City High gymnasium Saturday night.
First Team: Matt Totaro, 12, Horizon Christian (Unanimous); Isaac Bonton, 9, Columbia Christian; Mason Bloomster, 11, Horizon Christian; Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, 12, Columbia Christian; Quin Stephens, 12, Powder Valley. Second Team: Kameron Chatman, 12, Columbia Christian; Jailin Conboy, 12, Ione; Matthew Gille, 10, Crosshill Christian; Marcus Pratt, 12, Powder Valley; Luke Jobes, 12, Ione.
That’s where Horizon Christian’s “David-like” run at a second Class 1A state basketball championship in three years ended, as the Hawks finished runner-up for a second successive season. The Hood River team was trying to do what many considered impossible: defeat the small school division’s version of Goliath, aka Columbia Christian of east Portland. The Hawks held a brief lead in the third quarter, but the Knights pulled away down the stretch to finish with a 68-49 win.
The Knights’ roster included University of Michigan signee Kameron Chatman — playing for his third school in four years — and University of Idaho commit and Turkmenistan native Arkadiy Mkrtychyan (Ark to teammates and opponents, alike), who sat out last season after moving to Vancouver from Hawaii. Having two 6-foot-8 future college Division 1 players on a Class 1A team is rare indeed. Throw Isaac Bonton — who is considered one of Portland’s top high school point guards — into the mix and you have the makings of a lineup that was touted as unbeatable.
Horizon apparently failed to get the memo, however, as it went toe-to-toe with the Knights in an intense game in which 43 fouls were called and four players fouled out. That’s not to say the game was dirty, but rather featured two good teams who clearly gained respect for each other as the contest progressed.
Though the final margin was 19 points, the game was tight until the end.
“We never felt out of it,” Hawks Coach Darrin Lingel said. “Even at 14 points down, 16 points. We never panicked. We stayed true to form. … We’re just going to play ball. Whatever happens, happens.”
Columbia (25-5) had its big-name players to be sure, but it was junior wing Luke Moody who hurt Horizon early. He made all five of his first-quarter 3-point attempts and helped stake the Knights to an 11-point lead after one period and a 12-point margin during the second.
Horizon had only experienced such a deficit one other time all season. The team advanced through the state tournament a resounding 70-41 win in Friday’s semifinals vs. Crosshill Christian of Turner. Senior Matt Totaro scored 23 points and Mason Bloomster had 16 points and nine boards in that game for the Hawks, who used a 21-6 third-quarter scoring advantage to take control of Crosshill. The Eagles were making their first state tourney appearance after opening four years ago.
Columbia, on the other hand, is a school with a stellar state tourney resume. The Knights won the state crown in 2010 and finished second from 2003-05. But this year’s team was considered by many as the school’s best, and by some as the best ever in 1A history.
Horizon players were up for the challenge. Moody’s outside sharpshooting staggered them momentarily, but they emphatically battled back.
“We’ve been in position in preseason where we’ve been down at halftime against some of the better (Class) 2A and 3A teams,” senior guard Micah Engel said. “We came back on them too … We were nervous, sure, because it was the championship game, but knew we were all right.”
And that’s something the Knights hadn’t experienced before much of the season, as well as in two previous tourney games when they burst out to big leads and finished with wins by 59 and 34 point margins. Intimidation was a factor in those contests, as many smaller schools in the state aren’t prepared for such a physical, in-your-face game – let alone against a team with a collection of talent as Columbia’s.
“We talked about it at length — at length — that they are a good team and they are going to make runs,” Lingel said. “We just can’t panic; we have to stay within our game.”
In his pre-game talk, Lingel used reference to former pro boxer “Iron” Mike Tyson. Tyson was known for intimidating opponents before matches even started, to the point that opponents, for all intents and purposes, were defeated before the opening bell. Once Tyson landed a couple of hard punches, the outcome was all but secure.
“If we could just get past the first round, meaning the first three or four minutes, we would be in the game,” Lingel said. “It would give us confidence and hopefully put a chink in their armor as far as their confidence.”
Horizon did so, behind a foundation built around four-year varsity players Totaro and Engel, who were playing in their third title game and fourth state tourney.
“We have a lot of experience at Baker,” Engel said. “We’ve played some really good teams … a lot of us, in summer and in the fall, have played against some of the best competition in Oregon.”
Totaro, who will play next season at Linfield College, spent much of his time on the floor guarding the bulky Mkrtychyan, and he had chest bruises to prove it.
“We had confidence throughout; none of us were doubting each other,” Totaro said. “We all thought we could definitely play against these guys. We weren’t just going to let them run away with the title.”
Engel and defensive stopper Ryan Aldrich shared time guarding Chapman. They each gave up 8 to 10 inches in height to the long lefty, but their determination and grit were factors in limiting the future Big 10 player to less than 50 percent shooting for only the second time this season.
“(Chapman) is not really physical; he’s more of a finesse player,” Engle said. “So by just bodying him up, we were trying to get him out of his comfort zone.”
Down 33-25 at halftime, Horizon outscored Columbia 10-1 to take a 35-34 lead at the 4:24 mark of the third period. The near-capacity crowd, three-fourths of it clearly on the side of the underdog Hawks, exploded when junior Wes Johnston nailed a 3-pointer to cut the margin to 34-33. Columbia Coach Aaron McKinney, sweat visibly seeping through his gray sweater, had seen enough and called a timeout. That momentarily quieted the crowd, but the Knights turned the ball over on their next possession and pandemonium set in when Mason Bloomster scored on a jumper from the left elbow to give Horizon what proved to be its only advantage of the game.
“It got really loud,” Bloomster said. “They looked a little scared right then, but they responded. Matt went out and they scored a bunch.”
Shortly after Horizon took the lead, Totaro went to the bench because of foul trouble and Columbia reasserted itself. Robert Bristol’s one-handed jam on a drive down the lane was part of a 12-1 Knight run to end the third quarter.
“I didn’t see them getting shook up necessary,” Lingel said. “I felt the momentum shift, but as with any senior, seasoned team, they didn’t panic. They came right back and scored a three-point play (by Chatman) and they’re back in the lead. They did what they needed to do. They got a 6- or 7-point lead again fairly quickly, and we were back on our heels again.”
Horizon turnovers (20 for the game) also played a role in the Knight run. The Hawks had a couple of stretches when Columbia was able to convert miscues into points; in fact the Knights held a 23-8 scoring advantage for the game in that category. Only two of the turnovers led directly to transition points, but Columbia did benefit from a couple of extra possessions because of Horizon mistakes.
Columbia also gained another advantage when Totaro, Horizon’s leading scorer the past two seasons, fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
“Fouls played a part in the game, but for both teams,” Totaro said. “I was out for most of the fourth quarter and Ark was out for most of the fourth quarter. We’re both big keys on the offensive side for our teams. But our guys really handled it well and did just fine without me. That just shows that our team isn’t just one guy or two guys. We are all capable of making things happen.”
Horizon had one last run, fueled by Bloomster. The junior wing, who along with Totaro was selected by coaches to the first-team all-tourney, scored eight of his game-high 24 points and helped cut a 16-point deficit down to nine with less than two minutes to play. Bloomster found a little more room to operate near the basket, as by that time, Mkrtychyan also was disqualified because of fouls.
“Matt was gone; I was thinking I was the big guy on the court now … so I had to take over,” Bloomster said. “The middle is where you break things down. With Ark out of the game, too, I knew I really had a chance to attack.”
Nick Andersen scored for Horizon to make it 58-49 with 1:06 to play. The Hawks were forced to foul to stop the clock and Columbia responded by making 10 of 12 free throws to seal the win.