BOARDMAN - The Riverside Pirates (11-2, 1-1 Eastern Oregon League), ranked No. 6 in Class 3A this week, knew coming into this season they would have their work cut out for them. After all, they finished second in the now-4A Greater Oregon League, which produced the last two 3A runners-up (Baker in 2005 and La Grande in 2006), and reached the second round of the state tournament last February.
Returning just three players with varsity experience and with a shallow bench, the Pirates were just focused on making sure they stayed competitive in the EOL. Imagine their surprise when they were ranked as high as third in the 3A Coaches' Poll.
"I thought we'd be pretty high because we did pretty good last year, but I didn't think we'd get this high," senior guard Eric Yoder said.
"Just to be competitive in the league is all we expected," senior wing Anthony Calvillo said. "We weren't expecting no third-place ranking or any of that; (we) just expected to compete in the league."
Junior wing Bryce Doherty was surprised by the ranking because, he said, the Pirates hadn't played any ranked 3A teams other than No. 10 Umatilla Friday night (and won 51-47) and Umatilla has "the weakest schedule around."
Before falling three spots in the poll, Riverside lost to unranked Grant Union 66-52 in Boardman Saturday. But they haven't let the No. 3 position fool them into thinking that they'll have an easy road to the state tournament this year. In fact, it might make things a little tougher.
"I kind of wish we weren't ranked," Doherty said. "When you're ranked, every team is looking to beat you."
Riverside coach Clair Costello makes sure his players keep a level head, because he knows right now rankings are just arbitrary.
"That ranking, any coach that knows anything knows that nobody on the west side has ever seen us play," he said. "They're just going by the scores. It's nice that people are giving us some dues, but when you go into a game, the other team is going to play their best and you're going to play your best."
Many teams that start the season ranked in the top three would be talking about a state championship. The Pirates, who weren't ranked in the preseason poll, are worried about just making it to the show.
That's because, despite what the polls say, the Pirates know they have some "shortcomings" they must overcome to get to where they want to be at the end of the season.
Their tallest player is 6-foot-3 senior wing Robert Turner. The starter was sidelined for the Grant Union game with an ankle injury and also will miss tonight's rematch in Boardman with former GOL rival McLoughlin (at 9-4, the only other team to beat Riverside this season) and likely Saturday's home EOL game against Burns (5-11, 1-1).
"We've always been quite small here. I think it's the water," Costello said. "We've always been the smallest team in the league."
To overcome their height disadvantage, the Pirates have made the transition to a fast-break offense, trying to run past their opponents rather than go over them. It is a style of play that the team has responded well to and enjoys playing, even though it means practices must remain fast-paced as well.
"I like it this year a lot better than last year," Doherty said. "Last year we had a big kid; he'd just rumble down the floor and we'd set up and do our offenses. This year, we're just kind of run-and-gun."
Nearly all of their two-hour practice consists of full-court drills broken up by timed sprints. The only time they really get a break is when they practice foul shots.
"We just go and go and go," Costello said. "They feel good when they're on the floor and when they're done, they're tired."
And Costello said this is a tamed-down version of the practices he used to put his squads through.
But the Pirates need to be in the best shape they possibly can because they don't usually get a lot of minutes out of their bench.
"That's how it's always been," Calvillo said. "Our starters do it all, try to do as much as they can, and our bench comes in for the breaks and they do what they can."
"(Team depth) has been hurting us, but we've been getting back into shape," Yoder said. "When we're running, we play a lot better."
Overall, Costello likes his team's chances of accomplishing their goal of making it to the state tournament because he has an unselfish unit that understands the basics of basketball.
"We're not as deep (as my other teams), experience-wise, but they work real well as a team," he said. "They're a good team. They pass the ball well and get the ball in good spots and they understand (basketball) real well. We don't have a guy that puts up 25 shots a game."
And just because others have set the bar high for the Pirates this year, doesn't mean they are holding themselves to that same criteria.
"Our goal is just to try and make the playoffs and compete there," Calvillo said. "If we don't, we'll still play our hardest no matter what. As long as I know we did 110 percent and did our best, that's all that matters."
But the deeper they get into the season, the more they realize they are a team that can do some damage come playoff time.
"I think we're playing pretty good," Yoder said. "We're not quite as strong (as last year's team), I don't think, but we have a lot of older people stepping up this year. I think we're going to go to state. I don't know how far we're going to ge,t but I think we'll do pretty good. Once we make it, we'll go from there."
"I think (this team) is better than last year's," Doherty said. "I'm thinking we're going to make state. I don't think there's any reason we shouldn't, but I don't know. We'll have to find out."