Meeks shall inherit the court

Hermiston's Cody Meeks dunks the ball over Summit's David Haynes during their Jan. 25 Match up in Hermiston. Meeks, a junior, is in his first year of Hermiston basketball after moving from Moses Lake over the summer. Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Hermiston's Cody Meeks, a second-generation Bulldog basketball player, is picking up right where his father left off -at the state tournament.

Moving and changing high schools can be difficult for some students, with all the uncertainty that comes with living in a new place and looking for somewhere to fit in.

For Cody Meeks, moving to Hermiston from Moses Lake felt more like a homecoming. And as far as fitting in - he's got the entire school cheering for him on a regular basis.

The junior grew up in the area, and his return last summer brought one of the most gifted prep basketball players in the northwest to Hermiston and put him on the team his father, Richard, once took to the state tournament 26 years ago.

This week Cody will pick up where his dad left off and take the Bulldogs back to the elite eight for the first time since 1982.

"I'm excited to play there," he said about the tournament, held at the University of Oregon's MacArthur Court. "It's what we've wanted to do all year and what we've been getting ready for."

It's Meeks' flare for the big plays that get the crowd on their feet and has helped the school embrace the team's newest star. The way senior Bryce Baldock describes it, the junior "is like a magnet" for the ball coming off the offensive rebound, and time and again he comes away with put-back points and dunks.

Coach Larry Usher attributes the finishes to a dedication to the art of second-chance buckets.

"He makes his own breaks," the coach said. "He goes full speed to the rim, trying to get a tip-in or dunk, hoping the ball's coming his way every time. If he does that 50 times in a game and it works 10 times, we're in pretty good shape."

The alley-oop is another favorite play of Meeks', and many times he opens the game looking for the lob pass from point guard J.J. Ross to get the energy up early.

Meeks didn't enter the Hermiston program as an unknown by any means, as both Luis Ortiz and Brad Irwin had played against him as middle schoolers in an AAU tournament. Ortiz said he remembered the name, and when he heard Meeks would likely be a Bulldog in the winter, he was glad to hear it.

"He can drive, he can shoot, he has height, he's fast, he can penetrate - he's just what we needed," Ortiz said. "What sets him apart is his drive for the game."

Usher also knew of the multi-talented player and immediately began figuring him into Hermiston's program when he heard he'd be coming.

The first concern was to get Meeks to shoot the ball, as he'd come from an ultra-structured program in Moses Lake that didn't encourage inside jumpers. Over the summer, Meeks worked with the team and began to learn about Bulldog basketball.

"His achievements this year have come from adjusting his style of play," Usher said. "He's doing a better job of playing without the basketball in his hands. And at first he didn't do a very good job of knowing what his role was with his ball in his hands, knowing anyone with the ball is supposed to take a shot if they're open. He didn't grasp that until the fall."

"From when he moved here until now, I think everyone can tell how much better he's fitting in," added Baldock. "He's adjusted well. Playing in the summer helped that."

Aside from game style, the two major differences Meeks noticed about playing for Hermiston are much longer road trips and a better basketball team around him. Playing for Moses Lake High, his longest road trip was two hours and the team didn't come close to a league title, much less an undefeated league record.

The change of scenery has also helped bring Meeks exposure, though playing for traveling summer league teams the past five years has helped that as well. This summer, the junior will play for the "I-5 Elite," a team of Oregon's best players that is fully funded and travels nationally.

The trips are good and bad, he feels, as they cut almost every weekend out of his summer, but more importantly they match him up against the best prep teams in the entire country.

Though the major college scouts watch these tournaments like hawks, Meeks said the true test for him comes in the winter.

"Some (summer games) are similar, but some are a lot more intense, because every team is a bunch of all-stars," he said. "But high school is what we prepare for in the summer.... The ultimate goal is to win a state title."

The Bulldogs begin their quest for the championship Wednesday with Corvallis, a team that has only lost once this season and was ranked third in the final Associated Press poll.

Meeks gave the Bulldogs a scare in the season finale against Madras when he left the game with a severe limp and a high ankle sprain, but managed to play in Friday's home second-round win over Crater and said he felt much better the following morning. Usher is optimistic he will be 75 percent or better heading into the tournament.

The team is anxious to get the tournament started and the past quarter-of-a-decade behind them, but Usher believes they feel less pressure than the perennial powers who are expected to win it all.

"We're really embracing the underdog role right now," he said, "It's been a long time since we've walked on the court without the expectation being on us to win."

"(The lack of tournament experience is) not a positive for us," he added later, "because the teams we'll be playing have been there before. Teams like North Eugene and Corvallis got that experience last year, and that puts us at a disadvantage."

As for the players, they're just ready to get out there and see what will happen, hoping they can make a run similar to the girls' tournament last weekend. As for the pressure - some feel it will be around every corner at MacArthur.

"Everyone on the team's nervous and we're not even there yet," Ortiz said. "And we don't know what to expect because we haven't been there forever. There's going to be a lot of pressure on everyone because everyone wants a championship."

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