Missing six varsity players to one-game suspensions following last weekend's tournament in Sherwood, the Hermiston Bulldog boys faced a big challenge Tuesday in taking the floor against the Kennewick Lions.
Only two regular varsity players suited up for Hermiston, and the sophomore-heavy squad lost 61-53 in its final home nonconference game of the season.
The six missing Bulldogs players were suspended for violating school regulations off the court at the Sherwood Tournament, and several similar suspensions will be served by members of the girls team today when they face Kamiakin on the road.
Unrelated to the suspensions, Hermiston senior Aaron Allbee left the team for personal reasons, making Cody Meeks and Bryce Baldock the only regulars on Tuesday's roster.
Regardless of the situation, the Bulldogs (3-4) who did take the court played with a motivation coach Larry Usher hadn't seen in a while.
"This was hands down the best effort we've given all year," the coach said. "This is the first game in quite a while I've enjoyed coaching. I enjoyed coaching the game tonight because the kids had a great attitude and a great work ethic.
"There's no replacement for attitude and work ethic, and when the kids step on the floor with those two things, how can you not enjoy watching them play? It's only sad they didn't get rewarded with the win, because they played hard enough to deserve it."
The Lions (2-6) brought four seniors to the court and a squad with considerably more varsity experience. Senior Robbie Mitchell took full advantage, scoring 15 to lead the team and Raul Ibarra was close behind with 14, including four 3-pointers.
Though overmatched in age and experience, the Hermiston underclass made itself known in a variety of ways.
Sophomore Ricardo Rodriguez put in 10 points, including the opening two on technical free throws after a Lions' player dunked the ball in warm-ups.
Alex Boedigheimer was 2-for-2 from the three-point line and scored eight points in one quarter on the floor.
Rylie Smith grabbed a big steal late in the game and turned in two free throws to keep the Bulldogs close.
"Those are going to be some familiar faces in those uniforms," Usher said. "And we told the kids, with the right attitudes, they're going to be wearing those uniforms for a long time to come."
Rodriguez said he was nervous knowing he'd be playing his first varsity minutes - and a lot of them - but added putting in free throws before the clock even started helped settle his stomach.
"Right away Usher told me to shoot about 20 free throws because I was going to shoot our technical free throws," he explained. "That got the jitters out a little."
Though the sophomore class was productive, no one out-did junior Meeks, who put in an impressive 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. He agreed with Usher that the junior varsity worked hard and played up to the varsity level, and said he hopes the whole team can grow from the experience.
Usher said the regular starters who sat in the stands to watch the game can learn from those who played, though the younger players' execution wasn't always spot-on.
"We committed a few turnovers at inopportune times, gave up a few offensive rebounds, but for the most part we didn't beat ourselves," he said. "It was good to see a group of guys in there who didn't beat themselves, and hopefully it's something our program as a whole can learn from. Hopefully (the varsity players) can learn from this, and hopefully they'll hear footsteps."
The full roster will be back in action beginning Dec. 26 in the Las Vegas Tournament, and Meeks feels the group will enter the difficult competition with a better mindset than the past few games.
"It's rough having our starters sitting out right before we leave, but I think we'll be ready," he said.
KENNEWICK (2-6) 14 23 10 14 - 61
HERMISTON (3-4) 11 18 8 16 - 53
KENNEWICK - Robbie Mitchell 15, Raul Ibarra 14, Osvaldo Uvay 11, Tony Bryant 10, Danny Engel 6, Derk Westermeyer, 5, Kor Ter, Trent Brown.
HERMISTON - Cody Meeks 30, Ricardo Rodriguez 10, Alex Boedigheimer 8, Paul Lloyd 3, Rylie Smith 2, Bryce Baldock, Mitch Thompson, Michael Royer.
3-point field goals - Kennewick 9-14, Hermiston 8-18. Free throws - Kennewick 8-15, Hermiston 14-21. Fouls - Kennewick 17, Hermiston 15. Technicals - Kennewick (Team).