MISSION, Ore. - Nixyaawii's Golden Eagles could be considered the darlings of the field in this week's boys Oregon Class 1A state basketball tournament at Baker High School in Baker City.
This is, after all, Nixyaawii's first appearance in the state tournament.
Interestingly, the Golden Eagles might also be considered the favorites. Their 25-1 record, after all, is the best in the eight-team field.
Nixyaawii makes its state debut Thursday at 3:15 p.m. against Damascus Christian, which enters the tourney with a 21-5 mark. If the Golden Eagles prevail, there's a good chance they will match up against a Wallowa team that is responsible for their lone defeat in the semifinals.
Wallowa (20-3) tackles Umpqua Valley Christian (19-8) in Thursday's opener at 1:30 p.m. The lower bracket matches Columbia Christian (20-9) against Powder Valley (19-5) at 6:30 p.m. and Ione (20-9), Nixyaawii's Big Sky Conference Eastern Division rival, against Mohawk (23-3) at 8:15 p.m.
The semifinals are scheduled for 3:15 and 8:15 p.m. Friday, and the championship game will be played Saturday night at 8:30. If Nixyaawii stumbles in the first round, the Golden Eagles fall into a Friday morning loser-out game at 9.
Golden Eagles coach Aaron Noisey doesn't anticipate that his players will be blinded by the bright lights of Baker City in their first trip to the state tourney.
"Maybe some of our younger kids will be nervous," Noisey said. "But our older kids understand that it's still just basketball.
"They've played a lot of AAU ball, been places before, different venues. The thing we're telling all of them is that it's still just basketball."
Other than the loss at Wallowa early in the season, the Golden Eagles haven't experienced much adversity during a remarkable campaign that includes an unbeaten Big Sky record (14-0) and a 16-game winning streak going into Thursday's game. But a dramatic 67-65 victory over Ione in the district championship game a couple of weeks ago in Umatilla stands out as an exception.
"It was our third time around against Ione, and Isaiah Case hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer," Noisey said. "We haven't had too many like that one."
Case, a 5-foot-8 senior, is a 3-point specialist who averages right at 20 points a game, Noisey said. But it's another senior, 5-8 Shawn Simpson, who leads the Golden Eagles in scoring with a 24-point average.
"He's an all-around scorer," Noisey said of Simpson. "He can hit some 3s, he gets layups and he hits some jump shots."
Offense is the Golden Eagles' forte, Noisey affirmed. And that offense is the product of team speed.
"We're averaging right at 76 points a game," the coach said. "And our team speed and the kids' ability to play together are our strengths."
Senior Anthony Bonifer and junior Joe Crawford also average in double figures. The 5-11 Crawford is also the Golden Eagles' top defensive player while Bonifer, 5-6, averages seven assists per game from the point guard position.
The fifth starter, 6-4 Ashton Picard, averages seven points and a team-best eight rebounds per game. And he's coming off a 19-point scoring game in the Golden Eagles' 88-64 victory over Triad Christian in last weekend's round-of-16 playoff game.
Curtis Sampson, a 6-0 sophomore, subs in along the front line, Noisey said, and 5-7 freshman Rico McKay is the first guard off the bench.
"We usually go seven deep," the coach said. "Our eighth and ninth kids are freshmen, and the way we've been playing this season we are able to get them into games quite often."
Noisey admits that he doesn't have much of a scouting report on Damascus Christian.
"I've heard from a couple of coaches, and the word is that they will be the best defensive team we've played all year," Noisey said.
Noisey, now in his third season as the Golden Eagles' coach, knew he had the makings of a good team this season. Just not this good.
"The kids put in a lot of hard work to get to this point," he said. "I knew we would be somewhere in the pack.
"But being 25-1? It never crossed our minds."