As we’ve said before in previous pieces, circumstances are everything. Expectations for one team or another are greatly dependent first on what happened the previous season, not what they have coming back in terms of talent, coaching, etc. Fairness can be argued, but it’s how preseason judgements are seen more often than not: What you have currently in context of the previous year, rather than what you have at face value.
In either situation Western would’ve been near the top of everyone’s list as teams expected to make a run at the title in 2019/20, but seeing Western through the context of 2018/19 is one avenue to explore.
With four of the all-time great players in the program’s history (Payton Richardson, Alex Nicoli, Keaton Hull, and Johnny Williams), the Pioneers cruised to a state title in 2018/19.
“People think that the loss of just those 2 [ Hull and Williams] were big, but people don’t give Jayce Roth the credit he deserves. He was one of the best defenders on our team and I believe in the state as well”, Alex Nicoli
The core four, paired with Roth and coach Hull had one of the most dominant seasons in the history of Oregon high school basketball. This is a short list of their accomplishments:
- A 29-1 record
- Scored over 80 points 15 times, over 90 seven times, over 100 three times
- Season average margin 82-45 (their average game was an 82-45 win)
- Beat 3A tournament teams like Clatskanie (by 30), eventual 3A champ De La Salle (by 5), 3A #7 Horizon Christian (by 28), 3A #8 Umatilla (by 39), and 3A #14 Catlin Gabel (by 48)
- Alex Nicoli hit the 6th most 3 pointers by a player in a single season with 104, now 7th in the all time record
- Western came 118 points shy of setting the all time OSAA record for points in a season (1999 Knappa holds the record)
- Western’s average of 82 points per game became the 7th highest mark of all time in the OSAA
That’s a short list. A very, very short list. We could go on for pages, but you get the point. They were an all-time team, Alex Nicoli even believes they were the best team in the history of Western, which is very plausible.
“You had Keaton who was my other shooter, someone to spread the floor more, get good shots, and can light it up from 3. Johnny Williams could do it all, passed it well, could score when needed. He was a leader and someone I truly respect and admire and someone I strived to play like. I will truly miss playing with them. That Championship team is the best team in Western Mennonite/Christian history and ain’t nobody changing my mind”
They plowed through the regular season, the only blemish being a loss to a fully healthy Santiam Christian squad that pre Zach Baugher’s leg injury looked like the best team in 3A, after Western had an over 20 point lead at halftime. After that, a nearly effortless stroll into the championship game. Nearly effortless, not completely.
Enter, the Toledo Boomers.
Toledo for years had lived in the shadows, lurking behind as the Irrigon dynasty came and went, Santiam had their run, and the Western v Columbia Christian series surfaced. Though a dominant 2014/15 team made it clear to the championship game, they were considered at the time as a “flash in the pan” team. The common thinking at the time was “a good team, easy to root for, but not a long term threat. A good story”. They even beat Western that year in the first round at Pendleton, but the credit just flat wouldn’t be allocated properly due to Toledo’s obscurity for the decades prior.
The critics initially were correct. Despite Toledo’s good regular season records, they never could make it past the giants of the time. The two years following they failed to make the tournament entirely, and followed that with a two-and-out in the 2017/18 tournament.
In 2018/19, Toledo laid the groundwork for a run though. A strong regular season this time was backed up by a strong tournament presence. Not just winning their quarterfinal game, but taking their semifinal opponent clear to the end, only losing by 12 to a team that had previously been thought to be untouchable.
That 2018/19 Western team, the squad that set state records in points scored in a season, had four all time greats on their roster, and was untouchable in the regular season, was forced into a mud fight with what was thought to be a “flash in the pan” program not too long before. The same Western team that beat eventual 3A champ De La Salle, and countless other larger school contenders, was in a real dog fight with the Boomers. Western would end up winning the game, but only by 12. That twelve point win was Western’s second smallest margin of victory of the year.
People took notice at the time, and for good reason. Toledo ended up winning the third place game the next day over another perennial powerhouse; Knappa. Beating one perennial power in the state tournament like Santiam is one thing, challenging the eventual champ better (or at least with a closer final margin) than the eventual runner up is another, beating a second perennial power on top of all that immediately puts you in the “contender” column going into the next season.
Western won the title over Ben Gregg (now committed to Gonzaga) and Columbia Christian in a rematch of the 2017/18 championship game the next day. The Pioneers, their families, and community celebrated their second title under coach Hull, but out lurking on the coast was a team determined to take down the newly crowned champs one way or another.
It’s with that set up, the perspective from which to view what comes next with, we move to 2019/20.
With Richardson, a top 50 all time scorer in the history of the OSAA and all-time great in terms of stealing the ball, and Nicoli, a top 125 all-time scorer who possesses more records pertaining to the 3 point line than could be listed, both returning, why wouldn’t the pressure still be on to win another title? The core was depleted, but not gone. Western walked into the season the pre-season #1 in the coaches poll conducted by OSAAtoday, followed by Toledo at number two.
The early season bore fruit on those expectations. Western looked like the buzzsaw they’d been expected to be, torching reigning 4A champ Banks in the season opener 78-55, beating 3A Santiam Christian (still with Joe MaQuatish at this point) by 16, and having a flurry of convincing wins over solid but not killer 3A and 2A teams like Pleasant Hill and Kennedy.
The crown jewel of the early going however, was a win over Dayton on the road.
The Pirates have sustained losses in the last decade of being a juggernaut in their own right, even losses at home. Their only loss in the 2016/17 campaign after all, a season in which Dayton won the 3A title and marked a 28-1 record, came at home to Amity. The Pirates don’t lose often at home though, and they never get blown out home or away.
“Payt [Payton Richardson] and I were not going to lose to Dayton. We personally know a lot of those guys and I know Payton wanted to go to Dayton at one point. I know Payton didn’t want to lose really badly and I wanted to have his back on this one. We had the mentality coming into the game that we were not losing at all. We knew Dayton was a good team, we had lost to them my sophomore year and we knew its been a long time rivalry. We played together very well, everyone did their role, and Dayton didn’t know what to do. I remember when I hit the and-one 3 in the corner from Payton, we looked at each other and he said ‘This is ours now’ and I knew that no one was beating us”, Alex Nicoli on the Dayton game
The game between Western and Dayton can be summed up as an unknowing middle school travel ball team accidentally finding themselves on the same court as a 6A all star team. It was never close, and the Pioneers flat looked like they were making fun of Dayton at times. The final score did the game no justice, it was worse than the scoreboard would suggest. There was no facet of the game that Dayton had control of, including the crowd. Even in a home game, the Western fans had turned the gym into a hostile environment for the Pirates.
The final score was 85-48.
Moving past their absolute throttling of the future 3A #2 seed, Western found themselves a part of the Les Schwab “The Eight” tournament. As part of the Les Schwab Invitational, it’s one of the most high profile basketball tournaments on the west coast. Teams from Oregon, Washington and California were involved. Western would face 6A Tigard, then 6A Sandy, then two time reigning 3A champ De La Salle. Western would lose all three games, but by a grand total of 20 points. They held their own and then some, but it took a toll on the Pioneers.
“It was an awesome privilege to be invited and it was awesome to see where we matched up against some of the best teams in the state. It really showed us what we needed to work on…” Alex Nicoli said about the three game stretch of LSI games, “we got out rebounded every game and by the third game [v De La Salle], we were gassed”
From there it was the same old same old, no real break from expectation. Steamrolling through their conference schedule, the Pioneers went undefeated in league for the third consecutive year (total three year record of 44-0, win streak of 51 stretching back to 2016/17). The only instances Western came even close to a loss was when they played perennial contender Santiam.
A five point win on the road and a one point win at home in the league title game versus the Wolverines didn’t accomplish the big thing, knocking off the Pioneers, but it did do some small things to get the ball rolling.
As Santiam senior Colin Thurston put it, “we showed if you walk into the game and think you can actually beat them and you don’t defeat yourself, you can stay in the game. If you then get them into a half court game, they become predictable and at that point, they’re beatable”
Santiam, being a program that has tradition of its own, was able to walk into those games with the mindset that they were Western’s equals, not prematurely beaten before they got on the bus. The Wolverines were able to slow the game down, force Western into a half court offense, and get physical. Those two things, those simple tasks aren’t so simple when you play Western.
For years the Pio’s have run a press better than anyone at the 2A level. They move quickly, trap, steal the ball, pick off skip passes, and run in transition like few teams at any level in Oregon could. The 2019/20 teams press was one of the most effective Western had possessed in recent memory for many reasons, but as usual one reason stood out.
Payton Richardson, a 6 foot 4 former all state wide receiver and cornerback for Amity in football, was the tip of the spear in Western’s 1-2-1-1 press. Richardson’s incredible reach and athleticism would consistently lead to tipped balls, steals, and eventually lay-in’s. He single handedly, figuratively and literally, could dictate the pace of play with his anticipation of passes and ability to out maneuver just about anybody on the court for an easy bucket once he had the ball in his hands.
But Santiam was able to avoid that, get into the halfcourt, and win possessions in detail rather than in the flow.
The Wolverines failed to beat Western, but in effect, the mold had been made, someone just needed to fill it and the king could in theory be dethroned.
No team through league or the first few rounds of the playoffs could fill it. Mannahouse wasn’t talented enough, Santiam themselves fell victim to cold shooting, and Columbia Christian, though talented, couldn’t slow down the game enough. Western made it clear to the championship without meeting a team that could completely shut down their main facets of attack.
They were in the championship game. Their date with destiny, a chance to repeat, was finally arranged. But, working back a bit, Western was not the #1 seed coming into Pendleton. Despite their 24-1 record vs teams 2A-4A preceding the tournament, they had been stuck in the #2 spot. The #1 seed belonged to a team with just a little more RPI and Colley love than Western.
The #1 seed belonged to a team who had come within eight combined points over three games of being perfect, only losing to 4A #1 Marist, 4A #12 Sweet Home early in the season, and to Knappa on the road. A team that, for all intents and purposes, looked like they were playing angry. The #1 seed in Pendleton had beat 1A champ Nixyaawii, perennial power Coquille twice, absolutely throttled #15 seed Sheridan, and then beat Bandon and Knappa to make the championship game.
Now, we find ourselves at the apex point, the culmination of not just the 2019/20 basketball season, but decades of past storylines and intricacies that make high school basketball its own soap opera.
We find ourselves at Championship Saturday.
Western Christian versus Toledo.