Men’s NWAACC Championships
At Toyota Center
Whatcom (18-8) vs. Centralia (18-9), 8 a.m.
Big Bend (24-4) vs. Lane (21-8), 10 a.m.
Tacoma (19-8) vs. Peninsula (17-10), noon
Chemeketa (17-8) vs. Walla Walla (13-13), 2 p.m.
Yakima (20-8) vs. Clackamas (16-12), 4 p.m.
Edmonds (21-3) vs. Lower Columbia (13-12), 6 p.m.
Pierce (23-4) vs. Everett (15-11), 8 p.m.
Southwest Oregon (14-12) vs. Spokane (18-9), 10 p.m.
WALLA WALLA — Jeff Reinland and his men’s basketball team are happy to be back in the NWAACC Championships for a third consecutive year and for the sixth time in seven seasons.
But they’re not that happy.
“This is not a happy-to-be-there thing,” the veteran Walla Walla head coach said. “We are going over there to win some games.”
The Warriors open tournament play Saturday afternoon at 2 in the Toyota Center in Kennewick against Chemeketa. The Southern Region champion and No. 1 seed brings a 17-8 overall record into the 16-team tournament that runs through Tuesday.
Walla Walla is the No. 4 seed out of the Eastern Region. The Warriors waited until the final night of the regular season to qualify for the tournament, defeating Blue Mountain 82-63 in Pendleton to even their division record at 7-7 and their overall mark at 13-13.
Walla Walla, Blue Mountain and Treasure Valley tied for fourth place in the final regional standings. The Warriors received the tournament ticket because they had the best record among the three teams in head-to-head games.
Getting back to the NWAACCs was a long and arduous journey for the Warriors as they confronted one roadblock after another in a season that Reinland admits was perhaps the most trying in his 20 years at the school.
The hard times started in preseason practice when 6-foot-10 freshman post Morgan Scharf suffered an injury that sidelined him until mid-January. Then, in the seventh game of the season, 6-7 sophomore post Caleb Bravard suffered a season-ending injury.
Walla Walla endured another setback at the quarter break when Dakota Mortensen, a 6-2 reserve guard, was declared academically ineligible. And just as the Warriors were poised to commence league play in early January, 6-7 post Jake Hight informed Reinland that he was leaving the team to focus on academics and a possible military career.
“Caleb and Jake were both starters for us, and losing them really hurt,” Reinland said. “Their loss made Dakota’s loss even more significant than it might appear, because his minutes would have increased. And we missed Morgan for all but our last 10 games.”
That left Reinland with a roster of nine players — three sophomores and six freshmen — to contend with a difficult Eastern Region schedule, several nagging injuries and a persistent strain of flu that jumped from one player to another over the final month of the season.
“I’m not going to kid you,” Reinland said. “It has been a long, tough season. One of the toughest I have ever been through.
“At the same time,” he said, “it has been a pretty rewarding finish.”
The undermanned, outgunned Warriors did just enough to squeeze into the tournament.
Although they were defeated twice each by Big Bend, Yakima and Spokane — the three teams that finished ahead of them in the final East standings — the Warriors swept home-and-home series from Blue Mountain, Wenatchee and Columbia Basin, and they split with Treasure Valley.
“We kind of fought for an identity all year,” Reinland said. “Everything changed for us so many times. But we took care of business with the teams that finished below us.”
In fact, the coach believes his team is better than its record indicates. And the Warriors’ No. 15 position in the NWAACC’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) rankings would seem to bear that out.
“I thought we had a great shot at beating Big Bend here at our place,” Reinland said. “We also lost a tough game at Spokane and we had a great game at Yakima. All three of those games we could have won, but of course we didn’t.”
In addition to East rivals Big Bend, Yakima and Spokane, Walla Walla played tournament qualifiers Peninsula, Centralia and Everett during the course of the regular season.
The Warriors lost to Peninsula, the No. 3 seed out of the North, 91-82 during the second day of a crossover tournament at Umpqua CC in Roseburg, Ore., on Dec. 15, and they lost to Centralia, the No. 3 seed from the West, 76-65 in the first round of the Clackamas Christmas Tournament in Oregon City, Ore., on Dec. 28. The following night Walla Walla defeated Everett 99-91.
Reinland believes Chemeketa has a little more quickness than his team, but overall the Warriors and the Storm are well matched in Saturday’s first round.
“One thing about our team, if we can match up we usually play pretty well,” Reinland said. “Chemeketa is good, and they may have a little more quickness, but we match up pretty well. They like a little quicker pace on offense, but so do we.
“I feel pretty good about the match up.”
Offensively, the Warriors are averaging 82 points a game. And many of those points come from a pair of guards, Dylan Radliff and Case Rada, both of whom earned first-team all-Eastern Region honors.
Radliff, a sophomore and one of the Warriors who was stricken by flu late in the regular season, averages 17.5 points per game. Rada, a redshirt freshman, led the entire NWAACC in scoring with a 24.4 average.
Freshman guard Eric Harr is a third Warrior scoring in double figures with an 11.5 average. And sophomore Hunter Hahn averages 7.5 points overall but was up to 11 points per game in Eastern Region play.
With the loss of Bravard and Hight, the two 6-7 sophomore posts, rebounding has been by committee this season.
Austin Nooner, a 6-7 freshman, leads the way at 5.3 boards per game overall and eight per outing during the East campaign. Hahn and Dallas Reich, the latter a 6-4 freshman from Weston-McEwen High in Athena, average 5.1 rebounds each, Radliff is at 4.5, Harr at 4.2 and Rada at 4.0.
Radliff is also the team’s assist leader with five per game.
Reinland recognizes the challenge his thin squad faces in potentially playing four tournament games in as many days. It’s a challenge his players are eager to accept.
“There were times this season when we were all pretty down, thinking it was going to be tough to get to the tournament,” the coach said. “And it was.
“But these kids have battled hard and they are still playing. I think they feel some satisfaction for everything they have gone through. We are going to go over there and do our best.
“Now is the time to get ready to play in the tournament, not just be happy to be there.”