"To be a team, you must be a family.”
— Northern State basketball coach Don Meyer
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The Hermiston boys basketball team likely has never heard of the late Don Meyer, but it is practicing what he preached.
The six seniors on the Hermiston roster have grown up playing basketball together — three of them since the second grade.
They are brothers in a sense. They argue, tease, disagree over the silliest things and drive their coach crazy, but that’s what makes them who they are.
“They stick together when times are tough,” Hermiston coach Casey Arstein said. “They know each other’s role. They know who the shooters are, who the scorers are and they have good chemistry on and off the court. They drive me crazy at times, but I love them all.”
The group of Ryne Andreason, Andrew James, Cole Smith, Cesar Ortiz, Adrian Mendez and Jordan Ramirez have helped the Bulldogs (14-6) secure the No. 1 seed in the 3A portion of the MCC/GSL District 8 tournament. They will host Kennewick at 7 p.m. Friday.
“They have spent a lot of time in the game,” Arstein said. “They have a high basketball IQ, and that time on the court helps when you play teams bigger than you. They all bring something different to the game. That is a good thing. When times get tough, they know how to turn it on.”
In the beginning
Andreason and James started playing basketball together through the Hermiston Parks and Rec Department in the first grade.
In the second grade, they joined an AAU team coached by current Hermiston athletic director Larry Usher. It’s on that team they met Smith.
Fast forward to the sixth grade, that’s when Mendez joined the team.
“I got in trouble in the sixth grade and had to see Mr. Usher,” Mendez said. “He asked if I wanted to play. I had never played basketball before.”
But he was tall (at the time), something the team had lacked from the onset.
“He was always the biggest guy on the floor,” Usher said. “He had to learn to play the game, not just one position.”
Before Mendez joined the team, they endured some ribbing.
“We would got to tournaments in Yakima and other places, and the other teams would make fun of us and their parents would laugh at us because we were so short,” James said. “Then we’d win by 20 or 30.”
Ortiz played a few tournaments with the team in fourth and fifth grades, then joined the team full time in the seventh grade.
“Cesar couldn’t even dribble the ball during one of his first tournaments with us,” James said. “Then he shot a 3 with a guy in his face and turned and went down the court. He’s still doing that.”
Ramirez was the last to join the group, showing up in the seventh grade.
Usher knew as the pieces came together that this group could be special.
“There are so many youth parents who think there is a magic pill to be good,” Usher said.
“There is not. They were in the gym a lot. We would play 15 to 16 weekends a year. We would practice four or five times a week. We played in tournaments in Seattle, Portland and Reno to find the best competition we could.”
While the team had success, it did come with challenges.
“Ryne refused to wear socks in the second grade,” Usher said. “I don’t know why. I have been in Hermiston for 16 years, and we have never had size in the program. Trevor Phillips was 6-7, but he was a guard.”
With his son DJ on the team, Usher didn’t just want good players, but good families.
“The first step, and biggest step, in putting together a program like this is commitment,” Usher said. “We didn’t so much look at the kids, but the families we enjoyed spending time with. They are all good kids, for the most part.”
It’s been 10 years since Usher started working with the players, and he has enjoyed watching them grow as players and young men.
“Andrew is the kind of kid who wears his emotions on his sleeve,” Usher said. “He holds himself to a higher standard. You still see that in him. Cole has always been a mature kid. He provides a lot of leadership. He is the most coachable player I have ever had. He uses all the tools he’s been taught.”
Then there are those who have needed a little extra push.
“Cesar, all he wanted to do was cherry pick and hit 3s,” Usher said. “Not much has changed. Still trying to drive playing defense to him. When Jordan showed up in the seventh grade, he was pretty raw. We had to teach him the rules.”
By the time they were freshmen in high school, they were more than good.
James earned a spot on the varsity team, while his buddies played on the freshman team, where they posted a 24-0 record.
Let the big Dawgs run
Not much has changed when the Bulldogs walk onto a gym for a game.
Hermiston is the shortest team in the Mid-Columbia Conference by a country mile. That didn’t stop them when they were 10, and it certainly doesn’t stop them now.
“Our thing is to go out and play harder than other people,” James said. “In this league, everybody’s team has good guys, but so do we.”
While all six mostly agreed that James was the better player when they were younger, they could not make that same statement now that they are high school seniors.
“Andrew was bigger and stronger when we were younger, but when we got to high school, we all were a little better,” Andreason said. “Now, I think we are all pretty equal.”
“We all have our strengths,” Ortiz said. “We know our roles.”
The players were given a chance to say, in their own words, what they bring to the team. Funny thing is, their teammates had their say on that, as well.
“I’m pretty athletic,” said Andreason, who out-jumps most of the big men in the league.
“I play some pretty good defense, and I’m a good shooter. My favorite shot is when we play high post and I can shoot a mid-range jumper.”
James is the vocal leader of the group, among other things.
“I bring motivation,” he said. “And leadership. If something goes wrong, I try to fix it.”
Smith, who has been a valuable sixth man off the bench this season, quietly goes about his business.
“I bring a sense of tempo, and I’m smart,” Smith said. “I take care of the ball. We feed off each other out there.”
Ortiz is one of the top 3-pointer shooters in the MCC, but as of late, he has been taking his game inside a little more.
“I bring leadership, 3-point shooting and size,” Ortiz said. “I’ve been trying to help Adrian out down low. I lead by example on the court.”
Mendez is an admitted chatterbox on the court, and not just to his teammates.
“I talk to everyone,” he said. “I bring humor and I concentrate on defense.”
Ramirez said he brings energy to the court, but in an effort to save time, Andreason wrapped things up for his teammate.
“He is one our most consistent players,” Andreason said. “He creates shots for the rest of us.”
There were other discussions about who is better at ping-pong, video games, and they have all pretty much agreed that their kids will not marry the kids of their teammates.
And, if they all were lost in the woods, Smith would be the only one to survive.
As the players left the room, there were plans to end up at the Ramirez house. With this group, no one ever is alone.
“Basketball brought us together, but we will be always be in touch,” Andreason said.
“It’s not like basketball is the only thing that keeps us together.”
That’s the one thing they all could agree on.