PILOT ROCK — Throughout the latter half of the regular season, the Pilot Rock Rockets handled their success well.
The Rockets rolled through conference play and won 11 straight games down the stretch — all by nine points or more — and wrapped up the program’s first league and district championships in years. However, on Saturday afternoon, the pressure and nerves appeared to finally get to the Rockets.
In a Class 2A first round playoff game at Pilot Rock High, the No. 7 seed Rockets made just 12 of its 54 field goal attempts (22 percent) as the visiting No. 10 Kennedy Trojans’ defense stifled the Rockets and secured the 52-36 victory, ending the Rockets’ season.
“We had a great season and it is really disappointing because we thought we could keep moving on,” Pilot Rock coach Eric Smidt said. “But our shooting ... I don’t know what happened. Not sure if that was their defense or what, we were just so nervous we couldn’t make them.”
Smidt added that he believed a lot of the shooting performance simply stemmed from a lack of experience playing in high-pressure games. Even in the district championship game one week ago, the Rockets shot poorly in the first half (6 for 24, or 25 percent) before finally settling in late in the second half.
The Rockets (18-7 overall) shot very poorly in the first half as well against the Trojans (16-13), making only 4 of 23 attempts (17 percent). Except this time when the Rockets found their shot late in the second half, the hole was far too deep to climb out of. The Rockets trailed 19-9 at halftime, but then stared at a 34-17 deficit at the end of the third quarter.
“These boys over the last four years have had no real basketball program to speak of,” Smidt said. “They’ve been shuffled in and out of coaches and they should’ve been playing in tournaments like this since they were freshmen. And I think that hurt (us) tonight, the inexperience and stress.”
Bryson Pierce concluded his stellar career with a game-high 14 points, all of which came in the second half. Also playing their last game for the Rockets was Levi Thieme (nine points), Chris Weinke (eight points) and Riley Lankford (three points). Weinke gutted out the entire second half with an injured right ankle, which he suffered in the closing seconds of the second quarter after rolling the ankle following an awkward landing off a rebound. He came out of the locker room wearing a brace on the ankle, and was visibly favoring his right foot throughout the half, but he continued to put his head down and play.
“That’s the type of kid he is,” Smidt said of Weinke. “In football, baseball, in everything, he’s that kid that wants to be in the game and be part of the team. He’d play on a broken leg if you let him.”
Luke Hall led the Trojans with 14 points and Emori Lynk added nine. The Trojans advance to the 2A state tournament next week in Pendleton with the win.
And while Pilot Rock’s season is over before it wanted it to be, there is still a lot to be proud of from the boys in blue and gold. The Rockets went undefeated in the Columbia Basin Conference, they captured the school’s first league championship since 2009, the school’s first district championship since 2009, and the school’s first playoff berth since 2013,
“And we had fun,” Smidt said. “I hope the kids remember the bus rides we had, stopping for dinners, playing on the home floor, stopping and singing the school song at the end of games. Those are the things I hope they take away from the season, that it’s not defined by this single game.”
KHS 12 7 15 18 — 52
PR 3 6 8 19 — 36
KENNEDY — L. Hall 14, E. Lynk 9, M. Boen 8, R. Carley 8, C. Hall 6, B. Beyer 5, N. Suing 2.
PILOT ROCK — B. Pierce 14, L. Thieme 9, C. Weinke 8, R. Lankford 3, P. Thurmond 2, L. Weinke 0, A. Smith
3-pointers — KHS 5, PR 5. Free throws — KHS 9-18, PR 7-13. Fouls — KHS 11, PR 15.
Contact Eric at email@example.com or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.