WALLA WALLA - Coach Jeff Reinland thinks he has a pretty good handle on his team's talent level as Walla Walla Community College opens its men's basketball season Friday night in the Dietrich Dome against Linfield College's junior varsity squad.
It's his team's mentality that is still a question mark.
This quandary, perhaps, is because the Warriors are coming off a 22-6 season in which they won the NWAACC's Eastern Division championship and placed fourth in the season-ending tournament on the strength of mental fortitude more than pure basketball skills, their coach believes.
"There were a lot of coaches around the league last year who wondered how we won it," Reinland said. "Because there were a lot of teams in our division who were more talented.
"It was because we were just more hard-nosed and we had great chemistry. We were mentally tough, and it was just real hard to score on us."
Point guard Ryan Andrews, one of four starters Reinland will have to replace from last year's team, was the epitome of that mental toughness, Reinland said.
"He only scored six points per game, but he was our best defender, our second-leading rebounder and a real fiery leader," Reinland said of Andrews, who is now playing at Van Guard College in San Diego. "He was a real hard-nosed kid and we are missing a little bit of that, so he's a big loss."
So, too, is Emery Henning, the 6-foot-10 post on last year's team who averaged 17 points and a team-leading 10 rebounds per game. Henning is now playing at Montana State-Billings.
Also lost to graduation are 6-5 forward DJ Wright and 6-0 wing Aaron VanderGraf, who moved into the starting lineup when 6-3 wing Ben Searle was lost for the season with a brain injury. Searle, also a second-year player, was averaging 19 points per game at the time of his injury and was "the best player on our team at the time he got hurt," Reinland said.
Three other backups, wing Alex Roll, post Cody Fullerton and guard Nate Gibson, a freshman who opted not to return, will also be missed.
On the bright side, Reinland does have his leading scorer from a year ago, 6-3 shooting guard Jason Smith, back to build this year's team around.
Smith, who averaged 19.6 points per game, was all-Eastern Region and finished second in the voting for the division's most valuable player award. He sank 140 3-point baskets as a freshman and shot 43 percent from outside the arc.
"He's just a really good offensive player," Reinland said of Smith. "We are hoping he can demonstrate a few other things this year, like putting the ball on the floor. He's worked hard and is better at getting a few things for himself this year."
Reinland suggested that Smith, who is from Troy, Idaho, is probably the best shooter he has had in his 18 seasons at WWCC, putting him ahead of the likes of former Warriors Ryan Hanson, Brad Nicholson, Tommy Lloyd and Travis King.
The only other returning Warrior who saw meaningful playing time as a freshman is post Aaron Corsi (6-7) of St. Mary's, Idaho, who served as Henning's backup last season. Playing an average of 18-to-19 minutes a game, Corsi scored eight points and snared six rebounds per game, Reinland said.
"Those are really good numbers," the coach said. "He is a very talented guy and a load down low. In some ways he's even more talented than Emery - springier, thicker and more physical. And he's not a bad shooter, so we expect big things from him this year."
The other returning players are 6-6 wing Jordan Steele of Pocatello, Idaho, 5-11 guard Dustin Moore out of Garden Valley, Idaho, and 6-1 guard Ryan Schulz of Reardan.
Steele, Reinland said, is one of the team's most athletic players who can play either on the perimeter or down low. "He has good size and he's very smooth. He just looks like a basketball player, and we need some contributions from him this year."
Moore is a combination guard who was the backup at point guard last season. "His natural position is wing, and he can really shoot," Reinland said. "He's also very quick, very athletic and a good defensive player. It's good to see that he has stepped up his game."
The coach describes Schulz as another athletic player - "maybe the best athlete on the team as far as raw athletics. He's a solid 200 pounds, can dunk and he's really tough going to the basket. We expect good things from him and he's right in there for a starting position."
Reinland only plans to carry 11 active players this season, and the other six roster spots will be filled by true freshmen. They are Michael Crane, a 6-3 forward from Glenns Ferry, Idaho; Clinton Case, a 6-3 forward from Nixyaawii High in Mission, Ore.; Jon Payne, a 5-11 guard from Auburn, Wash.; Dallan Bills, a 6-5 post from Marsh Valley High in Inkom, Idaho; Mac Stannard, a 6-3 guard from Moscow, Idaho; and Colton Arias, a 6-3 forward who played on last year's Wa-Hi team that finished fourth at the Class 4A state tournament.
Another member of that Wa-Hi team, guard Gary Winston, transferred from the University of Idaho, where he had received a full-ride scholarship, to WWCC this fall, turned out for the basketball team and then decided against playing.
"He was with us for about two weeks, but he wasn't really into it," Reinland said of Winston. "He has a lot of personal stuff going on and we just agreed that taking a year off may be better for him."
Of Arias, Reinland said:
"I have just been very impressed with what he has brought to the table. He is coming into a different role where we are asking him to shoot the ball more than in the past, and he is doing that in practice.
"Colton will play the three or the four for us. He is just a great kid, a hard worker and a very good athlete."
Of the other first-year players, Reinland called Crane "a really good get for us, a guy who can shoot and drive who is a potential starter and a player who is going to be really good for us next year."
Payne, who played for former Warrior Ryan Hanson at Auburn is another potential shooting star. "He can really stroke it," Reinland said of Payne. "And you don't have to beg him to take a shot. If he gets a sniff, it's going up, and he can get really hot."
Bills will be asked to sub in for Corsi at the post position.
"He's going to play a lot, although I don't see him and Corsi on the floor at the same time," Reinland said of Bills. I only have two true posts, and I need one of them on the floor at all times. They are both a little prone to foul trouble, and the key is to get 40 minutes out of them combined."
Stannard is another "very good all-around player" who could wind up starting at point guard. And Case is a walkon and another long-range bomber who has earned a spot on the team.
Reinland has five other players on his roster who will be redshirted, he said. They are Dylan Radliff, a 6-0 guard from Richland; Morgan Schaarf, a 6-9 post from Davenport, Wash.; Dahrius Mills, a 6-3 guard from Juanita, Wash.; Isaiah Case, a 5-10 guard from Nixyaawii and Clinton's brother; and Regal Alvorado, a 6-0 guard from Wapato, Wash.
Overall, Reinland said he likes the makeup of his team and sees the potential for another winning season.
"This team, in all honesty, may be better than last year's team, talentwise, at every position other than center," he said. "And there's not a big separation there."
Now it's just a matter of developing some mental toughness.
Warrior men's schedule
Nov. 19 - Linfield JV, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 3-4 - Warrior Classic, TBA.
Dec. 10-11 - at Big Bend tournament, TBA.
Dec. 17-19 - at NWAACC Crossover, Blue Mountain CC, TBA.
Dec. 28-30 - at Clackamas Christmas Tournament, TBA.
Jan. 8 - Columbia Basin, 6 p.m.
Jan. 12 - Blue Mountain, 8 p.m.
Jan. 15 - at Treasure Valley, 7 p.m.
Jan. 19 - Yakima, 8 p.m.
Jan. 22 - at Weantchee, 6 p.m.
Jan. 26 - Spokane, 8 p.m.
Jan. 29 - at Big Bend, 4 p.m.
Feb. 2 - Columbia Basin, 8 p.m.
Feb. 5 - Treasure Valley, 6 p.m.
Feb. 9 - at Yakima, 8 p.m.
Feb. 12 - Wenatchee, 6 p.m.
Feb. 16 - at Spokane, 8 p.m.
Feb. 19 - Big Bend, 6 p.m.
Feb. 23 - at Blue Mountain, 8 p.m.
March 5-8 - NWAACC Championships, Kennewick, TBA.