There's no hiding the fact Hermiston basketball as a whole has had a rough winter. But out of the problems have risen two teams who have shown what refinement by fire can bring.

The details of the boys' and girls' team issues have been largely blurred by rumor - as any team with the sheer talent, athleticism and potential of the Bulldogs has to expect - but the effects of the issues could be seen on the court. Starters sat, sometimes not even in purple and gold warm-ups, and the squads who began the season atop the state rankings picked up several unexpected losses.

Each has seemingly found a turning point, however, and with four conference wins under their respective belts have put aside the image of a disfunctional program.

The boys' team's turning point, it seems, was in the stands at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, watching the UNLV Rebels conduct a practice. The entire trip to the Las Vegas Tournament after Christmas was designed to put the Bulldogs up against some of the best teams in the nation in an environment where they could bond, and watching the practice they saw how seriously the men on the court took the drills.

"We saw how intense they were for an hour and a half," junior guard Luis Ortiz explained, "and how everything they did was game tempo. That's what we're trying to accomplish. And I think our game shows how hard we've been practicing."

Coach Larry Usher has spoken strongly of the team's growth in maturity over the past weeks, and in early December said it was the lack of maturity which caused the team trouble. The season is young, but true maturity doesn't fade. If Usher's right and the squad has grown in "leaps and bounds", the first conference title in years could be in reach.

The girls had less of a distinct turning point or change, but they, too, proved earlier distractions were far from their minds last weekend as they opened league play at home. Without the services of Shoni Schimmel, the Bulldogs flexed their depth and bullied Crook County and Summit.

The strangest thing about the encounters were the Crook County and Summit coaches' reactions to playing Hermiston without Schimmel. Neither felt the Bulldogs were going to be any easier to beat just because she wasn't on the court.

While Schimmel's already a D1 recruit, Hermiston didn't seem to take notice when she wasn't on the court. Briana Stacona filled in effortlessly as the point guard and scorers picked up where any hole may have been left.

As a follow-up act, the girls went down to central Oregon this weekend and cleaned up again, putting themselves in a narrow lead for first place in the conference with a chance to extend this Tuesday against also-undefeated The Dalles-Wahtonka.

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Daniel Wattenburger is the East Oregonian's West Sports Editor. Call him at 564-4534 or write him at dwattenburger@eastoregonian.com.

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