HERMISTON - The Hermiston Bulldogs return three starters with a new head coach and look to challenge the Intermountain Conference for a spot in the 2003 boys basketball playoffs.

Larry Usher takes over as head coach replacing Larry Andersen, who returned to his home state of Utah to earn his master's degree.

"I am excited to get going and I think making the playoffs is a reasonable goal for this team," said Usher, who coached at Wapato High School in Washington for eight years.

John Barnett, Tyson Banker and Mike Haberstich return as starters from last year's (13-12, 7-5 IMC) team that lost to Westview 49-48 in the final round of the sub-state tournament.

The Bulldogs lost IMC co-Most Valuable Player Jared Zabransky, but Haberstich earned second-team honors last season and is expected to be an important factor in Hermiston's success this season.

"Mike is very difficult to defend and is a great skill player," Usher said.

Haberstich is a 6-foot-4 senior and can play the perimeter or penetrate to the basket if needed. Barnett is also a 6-4 senior that will be slow to start with deep thigh bruises he suffered from football season.

"John rebounds the ball well and he is the most aggressive player on the team," Usher said.

Banker, a 6-0 senior, will also be slow to start and may miss the first two weeks because of an ankle sprain suffered during football season. Usher said Banker is one of the more athletic players on the team.

Both Mark Carollo, a 6-4 junior, and Tyler Murray, a 6-4 senior, also have varsity experience.

"Mark is our best perimeter threat and Tyler will be big in the paint with his large frame," Usher said. "He is a good rebounder and has great footwork."

Senior Garren Gammell (5-10) and junior Jake Burns (6-1) will give the Bulldogs depth in the backcourt and Burns will run the point.

Hermiston will also use junior Luke Hansell (6-3) and senior Erik Solis (5-10) and Usher said Solis can play a variety of positions.

The Bulldogs have been set back a little because the football season extended into the start of basketball season, but Usher said that his team will be ready for IMC play.

"We have three starters that played football and we also have two injuries that carried over, but we have some tough games coming up that should prepare our kids," Usher said.

The Bulldogs open the season at 7 p.m. Friday when they host West Valley. Hermiston also is at home at 3 p.m. Saturday against University.

"We will be a smaller team in the IMC, but we will pressure and play up-tempo basketball," Usher said. "At times we will use our athleticism to play bigger than we actually are."

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Sports reporter Joe McHaney can be reached at 1-800-522-0255 (ext. 1-236) or by e-mail at jmchaney@eastoregonian.com.

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