No team started the season with a distinct advantage over the others on the boys’ side of the Columbia River Conference, with defending champs Pendleton having graduated all five starters and seven players overall. The other three teams all had enough tricks to make things interesting, if not challenge the Bucks for the title.
The expectations were high for Hermiston (2-12) to rebound in coach Adam Strom’s second year at the helm, but the team’s preseason was anything but smooth. Hermiston went more than a month between wins while forging through a series of disciplinary suspensions that sent three key players to the sidelines for a chunk of the season while another was dismissed altogether.
Hermiston went 0-10 while senior forward Alex Ortiz was serving his 10-game suspension for behavior in conflict of the student athlete code of conduct. The adversity had coach Strom reevaluating his season expectations.
Ortiz, along with Jake Fly and Cole Schwirse who also missed time, are back but the team is still working on clicking. The Bulldogs beat Southridge (WA) last week 51-50 for their first win since the Inland Cellular Bengal Shootout, the road trip to Lewiston, Idaho, that resulted in those suspensions.
While Hermiston may be getting its engines started after chugging in the driveway for the past six weeks, Pendleton is still searching for any critical momentum of its own. The Bucks (5-7) have lost four of five since breaking for the holiday season.
The issues for Pendleton have come on the consistency front. The Bucks are a hot first-half team but their youth has been a burden at times this season. Early leads rarely last, per example, a 10-point first-half lead against Lincoln last week that eventually yielded a 21-point loss.
“We’ve got to find ways to finish basketball games,” Pendleton coach David Norton said. “We’ve been able to play with everyone we’ve played with, but not for the full game.”
The Columbia River Conference teams haven’t been striking fear in anyone yet this season. No team has a positive record on the year, with the Bucks’ 5-7 spot the best among the group. Pendleton sits at 23rd in the OSAA’s RPI rankings — also the highest in the league — but still well into the lower half of the 39-team Class 5A.
So who can rise to the challenge in these last nine conference games?
“Personally I still think, even though their record doesn't necessarily say it, it’s Hermiston now that Alex is back,” Norton said. “They’re going to be extremely solid. I think Hermiston and The Dalles will be tough.”
Both boys’ squads open at home tonight, Hermiston with The Dalles Wahtonka (5-9) and Pendleton with Hood River Valley (4-7). Those games are slated for 7 p.m. tip-offs.
The CRC girls season opened under similar circumstances. Hermiston blew through the conference with an undefeated record last season, but graduated its core and returned only one starter in Heidi Walchli.
The Bulldogs (6-7) haven’t dominated in the preseason overall but have been hot lately. Following a 2-5 start, Hermiston has four wins —including three at the Nike Interstate Shootout in Lake Oswego — since Christmas.
Hermiston is starting to peak just as it hits conference play with its load of new starters working better together now than every before. The Dawgs’ battle tested schedule has them ranked up into the Top 10 by the OSAA despite the sub-.500 record.
Hermiston and Pendleton are tied for the last-place spot at the conclusion of the preseason with matching 6-7 records, but Pendleton’s losses have come against poorer competition. The Bucks rank 21st overall in Class 5A girls’ basketball, but have matched Hermiston’s positive pace in the past few weeks.
The Bucks entered that same Nike Interstate Shootout and emerged with three wins of their own to pull to 6-6 on the season and break a nasty five-game skid. But Pendleton has played only one game in January — a loss to La Grande on Jan. 2, and any steam it was building may have dissipated by now.
The pre-conference leader comes from The Dalles Wahtonka (10-3), where the Eagles Indians have worked their way into the Top 5 of the OSAA on the strength of an 8-1 start. The Dalles Wahtonka returned three all-conference starters from last season’s second-place run in the CRC in point guard Anndria North, forward Emily Bailey and post Olivia Starks.
It’ll be a clash of the top teams in The Dalles when the Bulldogs visit tonight at 7 p.m.
The Bucks and Hood River Valley (7-5) will face off in Hood River at the same time.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.