The Kennewick boys basketball program, with the help of a talented graduating class of 2012 and a gifted coach, ushered in an era of Lions basketball where a competitive effort is the norm rather than the exception.
The Class of 2012, led by Bryce Leavitt and Reggie Clinton, is long gone, but Lions senior point guard Mitchel Mueller has done more than his part to keep that tradition alive.
“(Leavitt and Clinton) just raised me for basketball. They taught me a lot about shooting and keeping your composure on the court, because they both played their sophomore year,” said Mueller, who saw some varsity time as a freshman before becoming a major part of the the varsity rotation as a sophomore.
“When I played my sophomore year, they helped me keep my composure and play my game,” he said. “It was about confidence, really. And Bryce had a lot of it.”
Confidence is another thing Mueller learned from his former teammates. If he’s not afraid to admit he’s got talent, it’s because he’s put in the work and earned the right to put his name on the line.
Plus, as the saying goes, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.
And Mueller certainly does that. Not only is he one of the top scoring guards in the Mid-Columbia Conference for the last two seasons — he’s fourth this season at 17.2 points a game — but he is one of the most versatile scorers thanks to the work he put in during the offseason. He’s also a solid defender to boot.
“Last year I stuck to jump shots a lot, but I realized if I wanted to be a consistent scorer, I couldn’t just stick to jumpers,” he said. “If I’m not hitting jumpers, I’ve got to be able to get into the lane.
“My coach really wanted me to drive a lot this year, so that’s what I worked on and that’s why I got better.”
Kennewick coach Bradyn Leyde had high expectations of Mueller early on after he showed an ability to keep his team in games with his cool demeanor and solid decision-making skills.
“He’s always been a stable presence. With (the 2012) group, he was in games because he makes great decisions with the basketball and doesn’t turn it over,” Leyde said. “He has the basketball a lot of the time for us, sometimes more than we’d like, but he makes great decisions.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise to know that basketball runs in Mueller’s blood. His grandfather, 1954 Kennewick graduate Dick Mueller, was a former hardwood hero who once averaged 23 points a game for the Lions. But when Mueller and fellow senior Duane Moe started getting some headlines for their scoring prowess, he said that drove a stake between him and his younger teammates.
“The sophomores and juniors never threw the ball to us the rest of the season,” Dick said.
That won’t be a problem for the current crop of Kennewick players, who know they can depend on Mitchel as a steadying influence as well as a prime scoring threat.
“He’s one of those guys that is quiet, but when you need motivation, Mitch is there,” Lions’ senior forward Chase Molnaa said. “On court, I’ve seen him grow a lot. He’s tougher to guard, mostly because of his first step. You just don’t know. He could shoot, and his crossover is pretty good. You just never know which way he’s going to go.”
Asked who might win a 1-on-1 showdown between grandpa Mueller in his prime and Mitchel, Dick said it wouldn’t even be close: “He’d run circles around me. He’s so quick. I knew my basketball, but I never had the ability he does.”
The younger Mueller credits junior guard John Wuol with helping sharpen his skills during practice and in the offseason.
“He really pushes me. I’ve gotten so much better just competing with him,” Mueller said.
He also played AAU summer ball with several other MCC standouts — including Payton Radliff and Jacob Devries of Richland, Aaric Wren and Wesley Henderson of Chiawana and Gabe Porter of Walla Walla — to help him up his game.
“You should have seen us this year. We’d go and kill it, taking either first or second at every tournament, just five white guys,” Mueller said. “Playing with those guys on AAU, we all got better and made the league way better.”
A year from now, Leyde will miss coaching Mueller just as he misses watching Leavitt and Clinton share the court in 2012. But the hope is that another talented guard will be right behind Mueller — perhaps Wuol, who Mueller believes has a chance for greatness — waiting to pick up the slack.
“It’s one of those things. It seems like he’s been with us forever. He’s one of the one’s we’ll remember,” Leyde said. “These seniors have really done a nice job playing together for a number of years. He wants to send the team out right.”
Jack Millikin; 582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org