PENDLETON — After a fast three-plus months, outdoor grass fields at high schools across Oregon now sit mostly empty and gymnasiums remain full, though volleyball nets at the center of the court have been replaced by basketball hoops at either end.
Fall sports are nearly complete, and the winter sports season is already underway as prep basketball and wrestling teams across the state began practices on Monday.
This week marked the beginning of Kyle Tedder’s third season leading the Pendleton boys basketball team, and prior to his team’s practice on Thursday the Buckaroo coach said he is thrilled to get going with his new-look group. No longer is all-state star Caden Smith wearing the green-and-gold on the court, along with other key players like Wyatt Morris and Johnny Stuvland. However, the Buckaroos return some experience with starters Shaw Jerome, Ryan Russell and Tyler Newsom.
“It’s exciting getting back, it always is,” he said. “The best thing is having our team set now and being able to start molding our process. I’ve been calling us a project from the start of the summer and that’s basically what we are. We have a great group of guys, they’re fun to be around and I think they like each other, but it’s a work-in-progress.”
For each of the past three seasons, the Buckaroos have been molded around the leadership of Smith and earned three consecutive league titles and a fourth place finish at the 5A state tournament just last season. As the Buckaroos begin their challenging road to a fourth consecutive title, Tedder said that the team’s focus throughout the summer and these first few weeks of practice are figuring out who will be the next group to step up.
“Can you play without a guy that this program had been molded around? Who’s going to be that next guy? That was a fun process to see and I think we have a couple of guys that could step up and take that role,” Tedder said. “But what is nice is it’ll be shared through a couple of guys, which is good.”
The Buckaroo boys are not the only storyline to follow throughout the winter, though. Here are a few more from Umatilla and Morrow County schools to keep track of this season:
NIXYAAWII REPEAT?: The Nixyaawii Golden Eagles girls basketball team steamrolled through their season with a 27-0 record to capture the Class 1A state championship, and looked primed to do so again this year.
The 2016-17 East Oregonian Player of the Year Mary Stewart is joined again by fellow seniors Milan Schimmel and Kaitlynn Melton, a trio that terrorized opponents last season with their abilities to score, rebound and dish out passes.
Nixyaawii gets its season underway on Dec. 1 with a road game at Dufur, and hosts Pilot Rock for its first home game on Dec. 12.
HERMISTON WRESTLING: Hermiston High School is known for its top-notch wrestling program, winners of 10 state championships since the turn of the century. But as with Hermiston set to compete in the WIAA next school year, the Bulldog wrestlers, like every other sport, will want to leave their lasting mark with another state title.
On paper, it may be a challenge for the Bulldogs this season as perennial state qualifiers such as CJ Hendon and Valen Wyse have graduated. But with competitors like Joey Gutierrez, AJ Tuia and Beau Blake still around and a the program’s tradition, the Bulldogs can never be counted out.
CRC GIRLS TITLE UP FOR GRABS: In the brief existence of the Columbia River Conference, winning the girls basketball league title pretty much became a tradition for Hermiston.
However, last season the Pendleton Buckaroos shocked the rival Bulldogs by halting a 28-game winless streak with a pair of victories, which helped claim the Buckaroos’ first league title since 2005. Pendleton appears ready for another solid season under second-year coach Kevin Porter, returning all-league players Kalan McGlothan, Maureen Davies and Lauren Richards, as well as contributors Elli Nirschl, Katie Bradt and Hallie Porter.
On the other side, Hermiston has worked all offseason to get back on top of the league, and they have the firepower to do so. Sophomore Jazlyn Romero looks like a star in the making and Maddy Juul is a force inside for the Bulldogs, while players like Jordan Thomas, Hannah Thompson and Regan Meyers are primed for breakout seasons.
The two teams first meet up on Jan. 30 in Pendleton.
CBC BASKETBALL A TOSS UP: Last season, the Stanfield Tigers boys ran away with the Columbia Basin Conference title on their way to a state title game appearance, while Pilot Rock and Weston-McEwen controlled the girls side.
But on paper, there doesn’t appear to be any clear-cut favorites for both titles this season. On the girls side, Weston-McEwen returns some solid players starting with all-league guard Chelsea Quaempts and Alyssa Finifrock, but has a lot of holes to replace with the likes of Sarah Finifrock, Sara von Borstel and Bailey Hillmick; Pilot Rock returns some talent with Kayla Deist, Sara Weinke and Grace Austin, but must replace do-it-all guard Bekah Roe and shooters Rachel Willingham and Jacey Wilson.
Culver could make a jump with defending district Player of the Year Irma Retano returning, and Heppner is expected to be much-improved with leading scorer Jacee Curring back.
And on the boys side, Stanfield has just one returning contributor from last year’s squad in forward Brody Woods, while Weston-McEwen must replace it’s 1-2 punch of Shaw Broncheau and Ethan Reger. Heppner and Pilot Rock just missed out on a playoff spot last year, and the Mustangs no longer have district Player of the Year Logan Grieb to rally around but gain some height with some new faces, while the Rockets return some talent with starters Riley Lankford, Chris Weinke and Bryson Pierce.
League games get started mid-January, and should provide a fun race through mid-February.
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.