PREP BASKETBALL: Senior sendoff

Written by Paul Harder, The Observer March 12, 2014 11:08 am

La Grande’s Jake Powell (24) goes for a layin against Central Saturday.
La Grande’s Jake Powell (24) goes for a layin against Central Saturday.
La Grande heads back to Corvallis for the state tournament after a three-year absence 

It’s been a work in progress for the senior class, but it’s finally time for the La Grande boys basketball team to pack its bags and head to Corvallis. 

The Tigers punched their ticket into the final eight with a 74-55 win against Yamhill-Carlton in the opening round. Now it’s off to the final site for the first time in three years. 

“It’s very exciting to finally make the trip to Corvallis,” La Grande senior Troy Williams said. “We had a great season. With it being my last year I’m glad it ends like this.”

If there was any doubt how bad the Tigers were looking forward to the opportunity to play in Gill Coliseum, look no further than Williams. The point guard broke the wrist on his shooting hand during the Greater Oregon League tournament win against Ontario, 57-45. Most athletes would be done for the season. But, Williams was on the floor in the opening round against Yamhill-Carlton, and playing well. Williams scored 16 points in the 74-55 win to send La Grande to the final site. 

“I wasn’t going to miss playing if I could,” Williams said. “It’s my senior year. We just tape it up really good, and it’s good enough to play with.”

The last time La Grande made the trip to Gill Coliseum, a second-place trophy made the return trip home. The Tigers lost to Central in the 2009 title game, 56-47. This year, No. 4 seed 
La Grande will take on No. 5 seed Henley in the opening round. The Hornets finished the season 19-6 overall, and shared first place in the Skyline Conference with an 8-2 mark. Henley had a mid-season 11-game winning streak before dropping two of its final five games. In the first round of the state playoffs Henley knocked off Cascade 63-60.

“We know quite a bit about them,” La Grande head coach Mark Carollo said. “I’ve been in touch with the Cascade coach. We have a nice scouting report, and we feel pretty good going into that game.

“We’re just going to worry about ourselves and let everything else play out.”

The Hornets enter the game averaging 59.2 points per game, while allowing 50.4. La Grande is averaging 61 points per game this season, while allowing 47.4. The Tigers’ key has been production from different players. On any given night it could be a number of players who lead the team in scoring. It could be Greater Oregon League co-player of the Year Tyson Wicklander. Williams, Jake Powell and Brandon Dall could steal the show. Or, points could come off the bench in the form of Kurt Boyd.

“The key for us has been playing together,” Willaims said. “It’s not about one player. We all grew up playing together, that always helps. That and defense have been big for us.”

La Grande entered the season with something to prove. With a record of 22-48 in the last three seasons, most basketball fans didn’t see an 19-3 season on the horizon, including a 17-game winning streak. But, Williams said the skepticism by some drove the team to work harder.

“It’s great to be able to be part of the final eight. Not everyone thought we’d make it to state,” Williams said. “So it feels really good to prove people wrong. It’s a motivator to prove people wrong.”

North Valley returns to Gill Coliseum, a year after winning the state title against Cascade, 64-50. The Knights open the tournament against No. 1 seed Philomath in the other quarterfinal on the same side of the bracket as La Grande. 

The Warriors (21-3) enter the quarterfinal match-up on a 12-game winning streak. Philomath owns the Class 4A’s second best defense, allowing 43.5 points per game. The Warriors have wins over three of the teams at the state tournament, including two against Cottage Grove. Philomath has a record of 4-1 this season against teams at the final site, with the lone loss coming against Seaside.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 14 Seaside will take on No. 6 Tillamook, while No. 7 Cottage Grove will play No. 2 La Salle Prep (20-3).

“Every team is there for a reason,” Carollo said. “It’s easy to say that La Salle or Philomath are the favorites just based on the rankings. I know they’re not 100 percent accurate, but both teams have good records and pretty big wins in the quarterfinals. Any team can go down there and get hot. We just need to go out and play hard.”