WALLA WALLA - When the 2009-10 season commenced late last fall, Walla Walla Community College men's basketball coach Jeff Reinland was unable to envision an end to the campaign that would have his team crowned as champions of the always-tough NWAACC Eastern Region.
But Walla Walla stormed into the postseason with an eight-game winning streak, a share of the Eastern Region title, and the league's No. 1 seed entering the NWAACC tournament. Its season ended on Tuesday in Kennewick's Toyota Center with a 22-6 overall record after a 71-66 victory over Mt. Hood which resulted in a fourth-place finish at the tourney.
"I didn't believe we'd be able to tie for the league (championship)," Reinland said. "Spokane and Yakima were real good, and you had to throw Big Bend in there."
Walla Walla tied Spokane and Big Bend for Eastern Region supremacy. All three teams finished with 11-3 league marks.
"I didn't know at what point I thought we'd win the league," Reinland said. "Maybe with a couple of games to go."
The Warriors got off to an 8-2 start during the non-conference portion of their schedule, and opened league play with a 79-69 win over Columbia Basin on Jan. 9.
That positive result occurred despite the exit of one of Walla Walla's top scorers, wing Ben Searle, due to a season-ending concussion just 40 seconds into the second half.
"I didn't know how we'd react," Reinland said, "but we were able to grind away."
Walla Walla found itself in the middle of the league pack with a 3-3 record prior to a Jan. 30 showdown with Big Bend, which entered the contest with an Eastern Region-leading 6-0 mark.
Enter guard Jason Smith, who torched the Vikings with a career-high 38 points in a 101-78 Warrior victory that started the regular-season-ending string of triumphs and thrust Smith into the spotlight as Walla Walla's top scoring threat.
"That got our kids thinking that we could beat these teams and beat them pretty handily," Reinland said.
The remainder of the streak included impressive home victories over Yakima Valley, 87-76, and Spokane, 79-55, and a pair of road conquests - a 103-92 toppling of Treasure Valley and an 88-75 bopping of Big Bend.
"Jason got hot, (post) Emery (Henning) got hot, and we were able to pull it out," Reinland said. "We had a lot of leadership from (guard) Ryan Andrews. When he came out (of games), Dustin Moore and Nate Gibson did a good job.
"(Forward) Aaron Corsi did a good job (filling in for) Emery," Reinland said. "We had a major threat inside which helped. It was a total team effort, that's for sure.
"The biggest factor was how well we played defense," Reinland said. "We were pretty good. We had players that could stop people."
In the NWAACC tournament, the Warriors were lackluster in an 87-75, opening-round win over Linn-Benton before being manhandled by eventual runner-up Lower Columbia, 73-51, in the quarterfinals.
Walla Walla eliminated Whatcom, 59-56, to set the stage for its fourth-place showdown with Mt. Hood.
"We won the last two games with heart and grit," Reinland said. "It wasn't easy. We had to keep focused and that's what we did."
This year's Warrior roster listed seven freshmen including Smith, Gibson, Moore and Corsi. Reinland, on the recruiting trail the past couple of days, is optimistic about the future.
"We ended on a good note," Reinland said. "We're pretty upbeat right now. It's time to go out and get the right pieces so we can do it again."