EOU men log milestone for program

By Casey Kellas, The Observer January 11, 2013 11:41 am

Mountaineers the top-ranked team in NAIA for first time in program history

For the first time in program history, the Eastern Oregon University men’s basketball team is ranked first in the latest NAIA Division II coaches’ poll.

And the team is enjoying the view from the top of the NAIA mountain.

“It feels really great,” senior point guard Cody Thurmond said. “We’ve been working really hard now for a couple months, and now we’re about midway through our season and we’re seeing all that hard work pay off. It’s really exciting and nice to know that other people think you’re that good.”

The Mountaineers (19-1 overall, 7-1 Cascade) are the third different top-ranked team so far this season. 

“I think it’s an accomplishment for the school, and it’s an accomplishment for the team, but we still have a lot of work to do,” senior forward Anthony Brown added.

The Mountaineers have come a long way over the last decade. It wasn’t long ago that expectations surrounding the EOU program weren’t very high.

But that all changed with the hiring of one coach and his first recruit.

Former EOU player Ryan Looney was hired in the spring of 2004 and was able to draw Hermiston standout Mark Carollo to the program.

In that first season in charge, Looney and the Mountaineers went 4-22, but over the next four seasons the team went 91-33, including the school’s first Cascade Collegiate Conference championship in 38 years.

“Ryan did a good job of cleaning (the program) up,” Carollo, the current coach of the La Grande High School boys basketball team, said. “When I got here it wasn’t at the level you would want a college program.”

Looney left EOU in May 2009 to take the head coaching job at Seattle Pacific.

So, Eastern Oregon turned to Looney’s top assistant to take over the program, Isaac Williams, and over the past three seasons, Williams kept the momentum going.

“Ike has been able to maintain it and has gone above and beyond,” said Carollo, who finished his playing career as EOU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,631 points. “I think it’s awesome.”

Now in his fourth year, Williams has an 87-28 record heading into tonight’s showdown with Interstate 84 rival College of Idaho.

“It’s been fantastic,” Thurmond, who was originally recruited by Looney, said about playing for Williams the last four seasons. “Isaac is great. I love him to death.”

Williams has had talented teams in the past, winning 23 games in his first season and 26 games in the 2010-11 season.

But he said this year’s team has a special make-up about it.

“We have good players. You don’t win without good players. But I think the thing that separates this team is that they are very close, and they are very unselfish,” Williams said. “They put the team first. Nobody has an individual agenda. It’s just a great group of guys.”

With last weekend’s sweep of Northwest Christian and Corban, Eastern Oregon matched its win total of 19 games from last season.

But being ranked No. 1 expands beyond just the players and coaches that make up the team.

EOU is a close-knit family, and that success is felt in a lot of places.

“I think it’s great for the university and the community and the alumni,” Williams said. “We’ve had lots of well-wishes from people all around the country and definitely on campus and in the community, so it’s great.”

Anji Weissenfluh, acting athletic director and head coach of the eighth-ranked women’s basketball team, agreed with that sentiment.

“It’s incredible for the men, for Isaac and his coaching staff,” Weissenfluh said. “But it’s bigger than just the men’s basketball team. Anytime a team can accomplish something like this, I think it’s great for not only the program and the athletic department, but the campus and community and region.

“We’ve got something that we can be really proud of.”

But at the end of the day, the season is only half over, and EOU still has a lot of goals left to accomplish before the year ends.

“It’s just a number that they have to put out is what I have to say, and what I’ve been told in the past by coaches,” Brown said of the ranking. 

With 10 games in the always competitive CCC remaining, the Mountaineers have their work cut out for them still.

“In terms of basketball, it doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Williams said. “It means people have a lot of respect for what we’ve done so far, but we’re just trying to do what we have done all year and play just one game.

“Our goal is to be the best team in country, and we’re not yet,” Williams said. “We’re just ranked No. 1 in the country, but there’s a difference.”