Tigers to face improved BMC in title defense

Stanfield's Tyler Hawkins dribbles past Knappa's Nate Boardman in the Tigers' loss in the first round playoff game last February in Stanfield. Hawkins has stepped up as one of the TIgers' leading scorers this season as they attempt to repeat as Blue Mountain Conference Champions.<BR><I>EO file photo

PENDLETON - The Blue Mountain Conference truly was a case of the haves and have-nots in 2007-08 with the bottom half of the league well below .500 at season's end.

A few key graduations at the top of the food chain and the continued growth of some talented young players could even things out a little more this season.

Returning champion Stanfield Tigers are one of the teams at the top that experienced a good deal of turnover this season as they lost their three top scorers from last season in Matt Ellis, Casey Irving and Tyler Blackburn.

Early this season a few key returnees have shown the capability to dominate a game scoring-wise, but more often than not the Tigers (4-2), led by second-year coach Daniel Sharp, have depended on balance to overcome opponents.

Tyler Hawkins and Hector Esquivel have emerged as leading scorers, but Quinton Grogan, Ryan Griffin, Chase Erwert and new faces Robbie Shirley and Tre Blevins have shown promise.

Omar Ibarra returns as a top defender and the Tigers have won every time they've held and opponent under 50 points this season. However, when their opponent tops 50, the Tiger offense has not been able to keep pace.

One team that is intent on making sure the Tigers don't repeat is the senior-heavy Pilot Rock Rockets, which started the season with five straight wins before falling to Class 3A Umatilla Dec. 22.

The Rockets (5-1) lost the mercurial Tyrel Graham to graduation, but have the experience and talent to recoup his point production and are playing more as a team this season under coach Doug Baxter.

The Rockets have to be one of the favorites in the conference with senior point guard Chance Bandy returning as one of their top scorers and defenders. Coupled with 6-foot-5 big man Shane Lazinka inside, the Rockets have an inside-outside game to rival any team in the league.

But even if opposing defenses are able to limit the Rockets' first two options, guard Tanner Mitchell, post Jeremiah GrosJacques and newcomer Tevin Dominguez all have shown the ability to step up and fill out the stat sheet.

Still, Pilot Rock lost to Stanfield all three times they played last season, so there could be a mental block the Rockets must overcome when they meet for the first time Jan. 6.

Hot on their heels are the Heppner Mustangs. Heppner (3-3, 1-0 BMC) is coming off a third-place finish in 2007-08 and opened league play with a 101-58 stomping of Irrigon that can't be too encouraging to see for their BMC opponents.

Like Stanfield, the Mustangs lost several key players to graduation. However, unlike Stanfield the Mustangs have a slew of pure scorers that could prove too much for even the most stout defenses.

Brent Eckman is coming off a triple-double against Irrigon and is part of a strong junior class that includes Chris Lien, Jared Huddleston and Bryan Holland.

Varsity newcomer Cody Orr already has established himself as a dangerous scoring threat, while Kyle Fuchs has come off the bench for some big contributions early on. Senior Joe Pranger also gives them another big body inside.

After starting 1-3, the Mustangs seem to be gelling under first-year head coach Dave Norton and will have at least four more games before getting back into conference play Jan. 9 against Union.

Last season's fourth-place team, the Union Bobcats, lost the most of any team in the BMC as they graduated seven seniors.

But 2007-08 leading scorer Zack Kimball is back for one more season, as are several players that saw lots of minutes as juniors and sophomores.

Kimball will get plenty of help from fellow senior Kyle Langford and junior Ritter Warren, but the biggest scoring threat for the Bobcats (3-4, 1-0 BMC) has been sophomore Austin Woodward.

The Bobcats lost four of five to open the season but have won their last two, albeit by a combined margin of seven points.

One of the teams that looks poised for improvement is the Enterprise Outlaws, which finished 4-10 in the BMC last season.

The Outlaws (4-3, 1-0 BMC) started slow with a pair of losses but have won four of their last five and have a dangerous scoring tandem of seniors Trenton Neil and Dakota Hull.

The Outlaws have struggled against elite competition early, but would be a dangerous team to play in February if they get hot.

Also looking to make a move into the top half of the BMC is the Weston-McEwen TigerScots. Led by first-year head coach Brian Pickard, the Tiger-Scots received some votes in the preseason coaches' poll, which could be attributed to the fact they lost just three seniors from last year's squad.

It won't be easy to replace the production of Jacob Cain, but Ryan Webb returns and should lead the TigerScots (1-5) in scoring.

John Huntsman, Shae Nelson, Brian Duke and Owen and Corbin Hegdal have shown promise, but they will have to remain consistent if the TigerScots are to make the next step.

Defense has been a soft spot in the early going, but appears to be improving after allowing a combined 173 points in their first two games. In the four games since then they've allowed a combined 225 points.

Already pressed for bodies, the Irrigon Knights graduated five players last season. They showed they are a team still in the building phase in big losses to Wallowa and Heppner and they aren't ready to play with the top teams in the region on a daily basis.

Still, teams would be foolish to overlook the Abel Burnett-led Knights (2-4, 0-1 BMC), which surprised Stanfield last season for one of their four league wins.

Dustin Osborne returns as a junior and is the team's first option on offense, but Jesus Munoz has shown he too can take over a game. Munoz has been either hot or cold early this season, but if both players can figure out a way to consistently sink baskets, the Knights shouldn't be giving up too many more easy wins.

Ivan Estrada and Marquese Taylor are key role players for the Knights, but also have struggled with consistency.

Rounding out the BMC are the Elgin Huskies - the only team to have gotten in two league games despite the winter storms.

The Huskies (2-3, 0-2 BMC) started the season with a pair of wins but lost their next three, giving up an average of 69 points a game.

However, a 59-57 loss to Union Dec. 20 could be a sign the Huskies are ready to improve on just one conference win in 2007-08.

They'll play in a holiday tournament and get two non-conference games in, weather allowing, before traveling to Pilot Rock Jan. 9 to resume league play.

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