Pasco boys back in a basketball groove

February 7, 2013 

Pasco basketball has had its share of glory days.

Mike Guajardo set a high bar for success, winning 273 games and five Big Nine titles with the Bulldogs from 1981-2000 before Chad Herron took over and led the team to four state berths between 2001-08.

But after Chiawana High School was dropped into the mix in the fall of 2009, Pasco struggled to compensate for the loss of many of its best athletes, going from a perennial league favorite to a team fighting to stay competitive.

Charlie Villanueva, the Bulldogs’ third-year basketball coach, has been there for all the highs and lows over the last 21 seasons. He was an assistant to Guajardo and Herron, and coached at Ochoa Middle School in Pasco for a few seasons before the Chiawana split.

Villanueva had a chance to leave for Chiawana, too, but he believed his work wasn’t done with the Bulldogs. He remained at Pasco as an assistant when Winton Lytle took over the program in 2009 and got a shot at the head coaching position in 2010.

“What I really relished in taking over the program was trying to get it back to the time when gyms were packed and people were buzzing about Pasco basketball,” Villanueva said.

That goal has been challenging, to say the least. Lytle won just one game in his only season, and Villanueva won three over the last two years.

But Villanueva’s patience has paid off this season.

With a core of 10 seniors, the Bulldogs have lived up to the potential they knew they had at the beginning of the year.

“We’ve been growing as a team, and we got a new key player in DeDrain (Miller, a senior transfer from Kentwood),” Pasco guard Julian Figueroa said, pointing to a 65-60 midseason win over Kennewick as the turning point to the season. “We played good team ball against them, and we were like, wow, it worked.”

After starting this season 2-8, Pasco won six of its last eight Mid-Columbia Conference games — including a major road upset over Hanford and a big home win over Walla Walla — to earn the No. 2 seed in the 4A district playoffs. The Bulldogs will play host to Walla Walla at 7 p.m. today in Pasco’s first playoff appearance since reaching the 4A Eastern Regional tournament in 2009.

“The most thrilling thing about it is we didn’t just sneak in,” Villanueva said. “We’re a higher seed. Someone had to play Tuesday for the right to play us, which is kind of cool.”

When Pasco beat Chiawana 65-57 on Jan. 25 for the first time in five tries, it was a major breakthrough for the Bulldogs, a sign they wouldn’t settle for being the second-best team in Pasco.

“I woke up in the morning to about 15 texts from community members and old coaches. They were so hungry for that,” Villanueva said.

Miguel Torres, a 6-foot guard who transferred to Pasco from Walla Walla after his sophomore season, is looking forward to facing his former teammates for a shot at facing Richland for the 4A district title Saturday at 7 p.m.

“Coach always tells us it matters how you finish out the season, not how you start,” Torres said. “The only thing that can stop us is ourselves.”

One community member, 73-year-old Pasco resident Donna Rasmussen, has been following the team since 1983, when her daughter began playing basketball for Pasco. Rasmussen still attends every boys and girls game she can with her close friend Juanita Jacobs, and she’s been impressed with the progress of the boys team.

“I think they play well together. There’s a lot of teamwork, and they play a complete game now,” Rasmussen said. “If Julian isn’t on, someone else is. (Senior guard Brian) Arroyo plays great defense. He’s tiny, but he’s fun to watch. (Luis) Murillo doesn’t get in much, but he works hard when he gets in there.

“I like them all.”

Rasmussen, a Kennewick graduate, played basketball herself and was voted most athletic by her classmates.

“My grandkids laugh at that. When I played you had six players on the floor (for each side) and could only dribble the ball twice,” she said.

The game has come a long way since Rasmussen played, and so have the Pasco boys.

“There’s only a few people in the crowd,” she said. “One thing I’d really like to see — I have to kick my grandkids sometimes and tell them, ‘You guys need to go. You don’t know what you’re missing.’ ”

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