From the start of summer ball to the past three months of preseason and league matchups, five local teams have put all their chips in the middle with hopes of earning a spot in the state hoops mix during district action starting Thursday at Hermiston High School.
This is the most critical part of the winter campaign, as miscues and missed opportunities could be the difference between staying on task or packing up the equipment a little earlier than expected.
Whoever comes out, they will have cut their teeth against some of the better teams in the state from the Big Sky Conference.
Hull’s Redsides (13-10 overall, 4-4 Big Sky West) are riding a three-game losing streak to start district action with those setbacks against Sherman, Dufur and Horizon Christian.
Before this latest skid, SWC had won seven of its last 10 games, scoring 87.8 points a game in that span.
Although blessed with an ability to put up points in bunches, the Redsides have been held in check to some degree, scoring 64.3 in this losing streak.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the Redsides hit the hardwood opposite Condon-Wheeler (10-14, 5-5 Big Sky East).
The last time SWC faced Condon, it pulled away with an impressive second half rally to defeat the Knights by a 90-39 margin.
The winner of this game faces No. 2 seed Ione at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Hull is hoping to see his team come out with a sense of urgency from the opening tip.
“One thing we have done all year is play with persistence,” the Redside coach said. “We know how we want to score, regardless of how we shoot, we know we are going to get a lot of threes and we are going to get a lot of lay-ins and that is what we are going to look for.”
One team that has been in playoff mode for the past three weeks is the Sherman Huskies, led by first-year coach Bill Blevins.
Sherman (14-10, 4-4) has won five of their last six games to end the regular season, including a 44-30 tiebreaker victory Monday in The Dalles versus Dufur.
The Huskies tip off at 4:30 p.m. Thursday versus Nixyaawii (18-5, 9-1 East Division).
Both teams previously locked horns on Jan. 24 in Moro, with the Golden Eagles taking a 62-49 win, using a 23-11 run in the fourth quarter.
One number of note for Sherman is 60 points.
When they put up 60 or more on the scoreboard, the Huskies are 10-2, but 5-0 the last five times it has occurred.
Blevins fields a young team of nine underclassmen and three seniors in Ben Holliday, Nick Coleman and Cody Jauken, so there are plenty of reasons to believe this program is one with a bright future.
“We have a lot of young kids who play a lot for us,” Blevins said. “To see them mature along the way has been really good for our program. I am very happy with the maturation process and I look forward to seeing the great things they can do from here on out.”
One player who has stepped his game down the stretch is junior forward Austin Kaseberg, who has averaged 16.4 points a game in the past five contests.
For Kaseberg, the goal is to move this playoff run to early March.
“We want state just like last year and our goal is still getting to Baker,” Kaseberg said.
If the Huskies can move past No. 12-ranked Nixyaawii, they will face No. 1 Horizon Christian at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
There are three teams on the girl’s side with South Wasco County and Sherman playing games on Thursday for a chance to keep their seasons going.
The Big Sky West Division champion Dufur Rangers have a first-round bye and they will host the winner of the SWC and Echo game.
The Lady Redsides (10-12, 4-3 West) look like they finally figured some things out offensively, coming off their third-highest scoring game of the season in a 59-23 road win over Horizon Christian last Saturday.
Much like the roster makeup of the SWC boys, the Redsides have a senior-laden group led by Zoe Morelli, Sonya Schmitz and Joy Kelly along with six juniors.
SWC will kick the tournament off at 3 p.m. Thursday versus No. 19 Echo, a team that enters play riding a six-game winning streak.
During this recent run, the Cougars have averaged 54 points a clip, and posted an average victory of 30.8 points.
With that type of an offense to contend with, the SWC defense will have to use its height in the paint and quickness at guard to slow down the Cougars.
In their six losses, Echo scored an average of 33 points a game, and when the Redsides held an opponent to 33 points or fewer, they were a perfect 9-0.
“Defensively, we have been playing pretty well for the most part,” said SWC head coach Ron Townsend. “One of our big things is we have to improve offensively, but they are getting better and they are doing things. We see improvement and we now need to get the same level of improvement out of all of them. I think we will get there yet.”
In matters of defense, junior forward Molly Foreaker went into detail of playing aggressive and passionate for 32 minutes to come out on top.
SWC has certainly displayed those abilities in wins over Lyle, Wash., Portland Lutheran and Sherman, also in close losses to Dufur and Nixyaawii.
“I definitely think this team has the mentality to play more physical,” Foreaker said. “In practice, we are lot more physical.”
If the Redsides can brush aside Echo, they would advance to take on No. 7 Dufur at 3 p.m. Friday.
One of the hotter teams to start the tournament is the Sherman Huskies, who have won 10 of their past 12 games, with the only losses coming against Dufur.
Sherman (14-9, 5-3 West Division) hits the floor at 6 p.m. Thursday versus Nixyaawii (14-9, 5-5 East)
In their 14 wins, the Huskies score 44.9 points a game, scoring 48 or more points six times (6-0).
The Huskies have a decided advantage with an experienced point guard in Andie Harrison, who is adept at getting the ball down low to her teammates on the blocks.
Katie Poirier and Janet Guzman are a pair of six-footers who can create some space in the paint for some open looks if needed.
“We have to execute our offense and get it to the open player at the right moments to be successful,” said head coach Steve Kaseberg. “If we can create those opportunities, it is important for us to finish those plays.”
In recent history, the Huskies have been unable to make a deeper run in the playoffs, losing some tough opening matchups.
Kaseberg has still maintained his confidence in this team, knowing they have what it takes to stay on a winning track.
If they can defeat Nixyaawii, the Huskies move on to take on No. 1-ranked and undefeated Condon-Wheeler (24-0, 10-0).
“We have to keep our focus on one game at a time,” coach Kaseberg said. “If we can come out focused and hit shots like we have, we are closer to achieving some of our goals.”
Rounding out the 1A field is the No. 7 Dufur Rangers, who enjoy a first-round bye thanks to an unblemished league season.
For a team that had to juggle several players in an out of the lineup due to injuries and illness, the Rangers and head coach Hollie Darden appear to have hit their stride, as winners of four games in a row.
Dufur can score from all areas of the hardwood, whether from 3-point range, in the paint or with fast break layups off steals.
The Rangers have a wealth of seniors along with some key contributors who can make a difference.
There are two levels of play that can turn the tide from wins to losses, but defensive execution is an area where, historically, Dufur excels.
The Rangers can play man, zone or press defenses to put the opposition on its heels.
On 10 occasions this year, Dufur has allowed 25 or fewer points, going 10-0, with an average margin of 25.7 points in those wins.
“We have been working a little more on our pressure packages,” coach Darden said. “Those things are going to pay dividends for us in the future when we need to create some momentum swings, create some opportunities and frustrate the other team.”
While defense is the hallmark of this Dufur squad, getting offensive consistency has been critical.
When the Rangers amass 49 points or more on the scoreboard, they are 11-1, with the lone loss coming on Jan. 3 against Triangle Lake in a tournament game in Portland.
“We really need to work on sharpening up on our offensive execution in terms of seeing things a little bit quicker and getting the ball where it needs to be at the right time,” coach Darden said. “It is about making sharper passes and using ball movement to get those entry passes into the post when open.”