WALLA WALLA - Ray Steele has been coaching AAU youth basketball teams on and off for better than three decades.
For a variety of reasons, he readily admits, not the least of which is what he views as exposure to college coaches that many players might otherwise never receive.
"Most of the big universities recruit through AAU," said Steele, who has lived in Walla Walla since 2007 and is employed as a sale representative for KUJ radio. "And I know that there are a lot of young players who might not get noticed by colleges other than through AAU."
So no one was more disappointed than Steele when his 14-and-under Blue Mountain Elite team had to pass on an opportunity to compete on the national level after qualifying at the Jam On It super regional that was held in Reno, Nev., early last month.
The decision not to enter the national tournament that wrapped up July 3 in Anaheim was partly financial, Steele said.
"It would have been a real stretch for myself and some of the other parents," he said. "But we had $900 in reserve and a $500 commitment from at least one sponsor. I think we could have raised another three or four thousand dollars, which is a lot but might have been enough."
But it was partly planning as well.
"The timing was just terrible," Steele said of the national tournament schedule. "Some of the parents had already paid for their kids to attend summer camps. There were other commitments."
So Steele and his players will have to adhere to one of sports' age-old adages: Wait until next year.
"I am going to keep this group together," he said. "Maybe we will add a couple of kids. We have the room to do that."
The Blue Mountain Elite roster was nine players deep this past season, including Steele's son, Dylan, and fellow Garrison Middle School eighth grader Andrew Miller. A third player, Linton McAllister, will be a freshman at Weston-McEwen High School in Athena this fall.
Other members of the team, all Oregonians, were Brandon Dall, Jake Powell and Michael Wolfe of La Grande, Layton Kirsch of Pendleton, Thomas Hamilton of Baker City and Taylor Steele, the coach's grandson, who is from Salem.
The 58-year-old Steele's Oregon connections go back to when he was in charge of the food service at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and later when he owned and operated restaurants in La Grande, Pendleton and at Wallowa Lake.
"At one time I was trying to run five restaurants at the same time," said Steele, who later sold them all and went into the stump-grinding business.
"I needed a change," he explained. "I didn't want to be the boss any more. I just wanted to do something by myself, and it was a pretty good business."
After living in Grass Valley, Calif., and Seattle, Steele moved to Walla Walla to be closer to his son after the boy's parents had divorced.
Steele coached AAU teams in Walla Walla for a couple of year. But in the spring of 2009, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was surgically removed that fall.
"They weren't giving me much of a chance," he said. "The tumor was bigger than my fist on the left front part of my brain. But it turned out that it wasn't malignant."
Nevertheless, it knocked him out of coaching for a couple of years. But in February, he decided to put together a select team that he could enter in area spring tournaments.
The results couldn't have been more surprising.
"It turned out they played way beyond their coach's ability to coach them," he said.
Their first tournament was the Zillah Lions Club tournament in March, which they won by defeating teams from Grandview, Hermiston and Richland.
"I wanted to go to an easy tournament first and see how we would do," Steele said. "And it was obvious that we had a good group of kids. But we were learning a whole new system and we were making way too many turnovers."
Next came the May Madness tournament in Spokane, where Blue Mountain Elite finished with a 1-3 record. And then the prestigious Best of the West tournament in Yakima, where they finished with a 2-3 mark.
"I knew it was going to take some time," Steele said. "But playing in tournaments makes you better, and playing in those tough tournaments is what really makes you better."
The team played well enough, in fact, that Steele, with the support of his players' parents, decided to enter the Jam On It super regional in Reno, which serves as a qualifier for the AAU National Championships.
The format for the Reno tourney called for all of the first-round winners to be seeded into the Gold Division and the first-round losers in the Silver Division. The two division winners would then qualify for nationals.
Blue Mountain Elite lost to the Bay Area Renegades of California in the first round. The Renegades went on to win the Gold Division and Blue Mountain Elite strung together three victories to win the Silver Division.
"We beat Fairfield of Sacramento 53-32 to get to the semifinals," Steele said. "Then we beat the Rocktown Ballers of Los Angeles 39-37, and we had to come back from seven points down in the final three minutes top pull that one out.
"Then we played All-City FAM, another California Bay Area team in the championship game, and we won 46-30. That team won its previous two games 75-49 and 64-31, blowing teams out and scoring a lot of points. We held them to 30 points and it was all defense."
Not being able to make the trip to Anaheim for nationals was a big disappointment for both the coach and his players, Steele said.
"At the forefront for me is that it's very seldom that kids qualify to play in a national tournament," the coach said. "It is something that is not easily accomplished, and that's what I struggled with."
The challenge now is to turn the disappointment into motivation for next year.
"We have a good group of kids," Steele said. "And there is a real good group of soon-to-be freshman basketball players in this community. I'm sure the high school coaches are glad to see these kids still playing basketball in May and June."
And, Steele hopes, college coaches will be paying attention as well.