WALLA WALLA — It’s always a good sign when your leading scorer from a year ago returns.
So 6-foot-1 point guard Dylan Radliff is one ace that Walla Walla Community College coach Jeff Reinland has up his sleeve as he enters his 20th season in charge of the Warrior men’s basketball program.
And with four others sophomores returning from a squad that posted a 19-10 record and qualified for the NWAACC Championships joining Radliff, the 2012-13 team has a core group of experienced players that any coach would welcome.
But experience alone isn’t what identifies this year’s Warriors as they open the season this weekend at Lower Columbia College’s Red Devil Classic in Longview, Wash. Nor will it be defensive tenacity, which was the trademark of last year’s team.
What Reinland believes will separate his current group of players from last year’s team — and perhaps any WWCC team of recent vintage — is depth and balance.
“It is going to be an interesting year,” Reinland said. “We’re only suiting up 11 players this year, but I am comfortable starting every single one of them. This is easily one of my deeper teams.
“We don’t know where we stand yet as far as being a good team. But top to bottom, we are as good as we have been.”
To begin with, Reinland will have to replace five graduates who all played key roles on last year’s team.
Four of them — 6-foot-3 point guard Mac Stannard, 5-11 shooting guard Jay Payne, 6-3 forward Michael Crane and 6-5 post Dallen Bills — were starters. The fifth, 6-3 Colton Arias, was the first player off the bench.
“We were a pretty well rounded team last year,” Reinland said. “There were no big scorers, they all scored around 12-to-13 points a game. They would all have their nights.
“The biggest loss will be their defense, because we were a very good defensive team last year. Take Mac and Colton, Crane and Bills, they were four very hard-nosed defenders. And Jay Payne was the most competitive guy on our team.”
Reinland noted that last year’s Warriors limited their opponents to 72 points a game, the lowest total in his WWCC tenure.
“But we were not a great offensive team,” he added. “We scored 76 points a game, which is also the lowest in my career at Walla Walla.”
While Reinland hasn’t seen that same defensive flare from this year’s squad, he has a pretty good idea that the Warriors will be much improved on the offensive end of the court.
And that all starts with Radliff, of course, who scored 15.7 points per game as a freshman and was named freshman of the year in the Eastern Region.
“He is going to be a big part of our offense,” Reinland said of Radliff. “But this team scores better than last year’s team. We will certainly expect the same or more from him, but he may not be our leading scorer.
“He’s good at breaking down defenses, and he’s knowledgeable about the game. We’d like to see him improve his shooting because he’s a little sporadic. But he was the freshman of the year and we’re happy to have him back.”
Radliff also led the Warriors in assists last season with a 4.6 average.
The other four returning players are 6-4 wing Hunter Hahn, 6-7 forward Caleb Bravard, 6-3 guard/forward Darhius Mills and 6-7 post Jake Hight. Of the four, Hahn averaged 17 minutes per game and provides the most returning experience.
“He is one of those kids who likes to come off the bench and would like to be our sixth man,” Reinland said of Hahn, who averaged six points and three rebounds a game as a freshman. “He’d like to have the role Colton (Arias) had last year, but right now I would start him simply because he is in our top five.
“He’s a slasher who can get to the basket, and he’s a good shooter but not a great shooter. Like Radliff, he needs to be a little more consistent, but his game is driving and penetrating and hustling. He plays hard and I’m expecting good things from him.”
Bravard averaged around 12 minutes a game last year. Hight played in all 26 games but averaged just five minutes a game relieving Bills. And Mills, coming off knee injuries that wiped out two previous seasons, saw minimal playing time once he regained his health in the last half of the season.
Reinland described Bravard as a good perimeter shooter who is more of a 6-7 guard than he is a post or power forward.
“He is the guy on our team most capable of getting hot from the 3-point line,” Reinland said of Bravard. “He’s very athletic, very bouncy and very active. Right now he’s a starter and we are expecting quite a bit from him.”
Hight might be the most improved player among the sophomores, the coach suggested.
“Jake wasn’t quite ready last year, but he’s pretty tough right now,” Reinland said. “He’s a scorer. He can shoot jump hooks with both hands, and he’s a better offensive player than Dallen was going into last season.
“Jake has a good feel for the game, passes well out of the post and I think we are going to be pleasantly surprised with the kind of year he has. He is a very disciplined kid who has made a lot of improvements in his game.”
For Mills, it’s all about his health. And so far, so good.
“He’s pretty athletic and kind of a multi-purpose player who can play three or four positions,” Reinland said of Mills. “He’s a strong kid, and he can help us if he can stay healthy.
“He’s been cleared to play and he seems fine. But when you’ve blown your knee twice, you don’t want to do it a third time. So for him, and for me, it’s finding that comfort zone. I still find myself cringing when he’s out there playing hard and you’re just hoping it doesn’t go again.”
A transfer and five freshmen round out WWCC’s active roster.
The transfer is Kamiakin High product Case Rada, a 6-2 wing who attended Boise State last year and turned out for the team as a walkon. Since he never played for the Broncos and won an eligibility appeal, he’s immediately eligible to play at WWCC and has all four years of athletic eligibility intact.
But his preseason practice schedule has been slowed by knee tendonitis.
“Tendonitis can be a pretty stubborn thing,” Reinland said. “We’ve been sitting him out, hoping to get him ready for this weekend. If the soreness doesn’t go away, he’ll go for an MRI and see what is going on.”
Reinland expects big things from Rada if he can get him on the court.
“He is our best shooter day in and day out, our best offensive player,” the coach said of Rada. “He is a strong kid, a good passer and a hard worker.
The five first-year players are Dallas Reich, a 6-4 wing out of Weston-McEwen High in Athena; Eric Harr, a 6-0 guard from Twin Falls, Idaho; Dakota Mortensen, a 6-2 wing from Middleton, Idaho; Austin Nooner, a 6-7 post from Salmon, Idaho; and 6-10 Morgan Scharf, another post from Davenport, Wash.
Reich, who led the TigerScots to back-to-back state tournaments, is capable of playing a forward position but is more at home on the wing.
“He is going to be a very good player here,” Reinland said of Reich. “He’s a good shooter, a good athlete, has good bounce, is quick and very coachable. He wants to be a better player, and because of that he is going to be.”
Harr is another good outside shooter.
“He is one of my top recruits, someone I really, really went hard to get,” Reinland said. “He’s a typical hard-nosed WWCC player, a 6-0 guard who can shoot the ball. He’s not super quick, but he makes up for that by how hard he plays.”
Mortensen is a 2011 high school grad who sat out last season. He’s another shooter who makes up for any physical shortcomings with his work ethic, Reinland said.
“Dakota reminds of a kid who played here many years ago, Will Hutchens of Dayton, who played so hard I didn’t know how his body survived,” Reinland said. “Dakota is a kamikaze out there who can shoot and drive and is a pretty good overall player. He easily has the highest motor on the team.”
Nooner most reminds Reinland of Bills, the Warriors’ overachieving post from a year ago.
“He’s explosive and athletic, physically strong, and he’s a couple of inches taller than Bills, maybe three,” Reinland said. “He’s kind of a banger and right in there for playing time.”
Scharf, who at 6-10 is the tallest Warrior, turned out for the Warriors two seasons ago. Reinland planned to redshirt Scharf, but an illness ended his season instead.
“Things just didn’t pan out for him and he left school,” Reinland said. “He came to one of our games last year in Spokane, just showed up out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, coach, I want to come back.’
“And right now he is probably our best inside scorer. He has great touch, great hands and good patience in the post. He is one of our most intriguing players.”
In addition to the 11 players Reinland plans to suit up each and every night, their are seven other players at practice who are being redshirted. The list includes Garret Turner, 6-0 guard, Dayton; Jared Allen, 6-7 forward, Twin Falls, Idaho; James Baerlocker, 6-8 post, Lewiston; Garrett Sawyer, 6-1 guard, Central Valley High in Spokane; Adam Baker, 6-2 guard, Richland; Satchel Schetzle, 6-1 guard, St. Mary’s, Idaho; and Shaq Kennedy, 6-1 wing, Jerome, Idaho.
“I could run a jayvee program if I wanted to,” Reinland said. “It just goes to show you how many kids there are out there who want to play.”