PILOT ROCK — When Pilot Rock’s four seniors — Bryson Pierce, Riley Lankford, Chris Weinke and Levi Thieme — were eighth graders, they sat in the stands as the varsity basketball team struggled their way to a 1-23 overall record.
Now as seniors, those four players are leading the Rockets to one the school’s best seasons in the last decade. Pilot Rock thumped the Culver Bulldogs 54-35 on Saturday night to get to 14-6 overall and a perfect 5-0 mark in the Columbia Basin Conference.
“We’re having a lot of fun, obviously,” Thieme said afterward while wearing a wide smile. “Going out and winning when we’ve had rough seasons in the past, it’s really nice.”
From 2008-2013, the Rockets put together three 20-win seasons, including back-to-back seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13 that came with district titles. But then over the next three seasons the team won a combined 16 games.
Last season gave a glimpse to the current Rockets’ potential as the team went 11-10 overall and 4-4 in a loaded league, narrowly missing out on a trip to the district tournament with a play-in loss to Weston-McEwen.
However this season, with a relatively weaker league, the Rockets have taken full control of the CBC and look poised for a trip back to the postseason.
“What’s driving us is those seniors are good leaders, good players, and they play together,” Pilot Rock coach Eric Smidt said. “It’s not hard to coach this team. Mike Weinke coached those guys last year and prepped them well, I’ve just tried to give them something to play for and get them out there on the floor and there’s not a lot I have to do.
“They play defense and rebound really well and that’s really what drives it.”
The Rockets came out against the Bulldogs on Saturday with a lightning-quick and efficient offense and smothering defense. The home team led 16-2 at the end of the first quarter and 32-8 at halftime and it seemed like the win was already wrapped up.
But with spirit week festivities at halftime, the Rockets did not get a true halftime break and chance to talk and game plan for the second half. And Smidt believes that non-break led to the sluggish play in the third and early fourth quarters, where Culver found a groove and outscored the Rockets 23-9 over the first 10 minutes to get within 10 points at 41-31.
However, that 10-point cushion finally gave the Rockets the wake up call and they flipped the switch back on and cruised to the victory.
“I wasn’t able to talk to half of my team and get them re-focused for the second,” Smidt said. “But we came out and responded to the attack in the fourth, rebounded and played defense and hit our shots.”
Pierce had a fantastic performance for the Rockets, scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, though double-doubles have become a norm for him.
Thieme followed Pierce with 15 points and seven rebounds, and his line might have been better had he not dealt with foul trouble for parts of the first and second halves. And Lankford and Weinke combined for nine points to continue the seniors’ string of solid output.
“It means a lot for them to play for something,” Smidt said. “They all have a lot of pride in their community and in their school and they are out here showing that pride when they step on the floor and give all their effort, and that’s impressive.”
The Rockets have only three games left in league play starting with Weston-McEwen at home on Feb. 3 and two straight on the road at Heppner and Stanfield on Feb. 9 and 10. At least two wins will clinch the CBC regular season title and a spot in the district title game, and the Rockets’ confidence is sky-high.
“We’re feeling confident about going on,” Thieme said. “Our goal is to win league and win state, and I think we have the potential to do it. We just need to keep playing how we are and play as a team and take it done game at a time.”
CHS 2 6 17 10 — 35
PR 16 16 5 17 — 54
CULVER — W. Basl 12, M. Kruger 11, D. Gutierrez 4, E. Gutierrez 2.
PILOT ROCK — B. Pierce 27, L. Thieme 15, R. Lankford 5, C. Weinke 4, L. Weinke 3.
3-pointers — CHS 3, PR 2. Free throws — CHS 4-6, PR 14-19. Fouls — CHS 12, PR 6.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.