The rich basketball history around the Tri-Cities isn’t just limited to the bigger schools. The small schools have also written their own verses in the lore of Mid-Columbia hoops tradition.
This year, a number of schools from Class 2A and below are hoping to hang a league championship banner and bring home some new hardward from the state tournament.
Maybe even add a new championship banner.
Here are some things to watch out for in small-school boys and girls basketball this year.
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CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS: Prosser tied with Ellensburg for third place last season behind Ephrata and East Valley in the ultra-competitive Class 2A Central Washington Athletic Conference (CWAC) and returns a strong roster. The Mustangs are just 1-3 so far in 2015 but an extremely tough schedule should balance out on the back end. Grandview is always a factor and won’t make things easy for teams, especially at home.
In the Class 1A South Central Athletic Conference (SCAC), expect as many as three teams — Columbia-Burbank, Connell and Kiona-Benton — to make a play for the East division title. Burbank squeezed out a league championship over Ki-Be last year, and another tight race is almost assured. Five players from last year’s all-SCAC East team — including MVP Darrel Wheeler from Kiona-Benton — are back.
The Southeast 2B features a strong team in Walla Walla Valley Academy, which reached the state tournament after running away with the league title in 2015. The race should be much tighter in the Southeast 1B, where Pomeroy and Garfield-Palouse will again battle it out for the league title.
ON THE RISE: Othello may be in a rebuilding year, but with four sophomore starters and a new coach in George Juarez, look for a sharp learning curve.
Kiona-Benton returns four starters — three of them are three-year starters — and is hungry to return to state for just the second time since 2003. River View has showed marked improvement and could go far on the shoulders of Mario Jaramillo, the SCAC East’s best shooter. The Panthers may also get a lift from Hermiston transfer Kody Hamlin.
Tri-Cities Prep has a young team with good leadership that could make a return trip to state.
Liberty Christian returns two all-SE 1B players in Chris Kelly and Cameron Godwin, who should help a cohesive lineup contend for a title.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: At Prosser, 6-foot-9 post Scott Blakney is still just a junior and is still the top small school big man in the Mid-Columbia. He’ll be joined by guard Nate Brown, a sharp-shooter who will give the Mustangs a good inside-out game. Grandview returns sophomore guard Gunner Chronis, who made a big impression as a freshman, scoring 17.5 points a game. Trenton Cutforth is the lone returning starter at Othello.
The SCAC East is loaded with strong players, led by Wheeler and Nate Rossine at Ki-Be. River View’s Jaramillo is making a strong early case for league MVP and has help from Baley Westberg. Connell returns a formidable post tandem in Nick Hopkins and Gabe Tolrud. At Burbank, Jermaine Broetje and Chase Sorbel are keeping the Coyotes in contention.
At the B level, Bennett Pedersen of Tri-Cities Prep is making a strong impression so far, averaging over 10 points and nearly nine rebounds per game.
CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS: Ellensburg is still the team to beat after winning the CWAC title and finishing third at state last season. The Bulldogs return all but three seniors and should make another run for the title. Close behind is Wapato and Selah, who are tied for second at 5-1.
The SCAC East will be a very exciting race to watch with several teams vying for the top spot. Kiona-Benton earned the league title last season, but Columbia-Burbank and Connell were right on the Bears’ tail. Expect much of the same this season.
DeSales has had a lock on the Southeast 2B for the last several seasons but could get some resistance from Dayton, which returns three all-league players.
In the SE 1B, defending state champion Colton will hold down the top spot, but Touchet will make some noise behind them with an exciting young base of talent.
ON THE RISE: Grandview might not win a CWAC title this year, but they’re building the right way under first-year coach Chad Bunker. Prosser lost two starters to injury but has a strong young base of talent.
Columbia-Burbank has eight players back from a team that finished a close second in the SCAC East race. The Coyotes’ have excellent team balance led by Taylor Turner, a versatile all-league post. Don’t be surprised to see Burbank renew their strong tradition of reaching state.
Walla Walla Valley Academy, with a good balance of experience and youth, will contend for the SE 2B title. In the SE 1B, Liberty Christian is poised for a strong season despite a sub-.500 finish last year.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Freshman Marissa Cortes is already making a big impact at Prosser. The first-year guard is described by coach Kyle Bachofner as “very mature, an Excellend defender and an offensive threat.”
The SCAC has several impact players that will give fans their money’s worth this year. Turner will combine with Jamie Ellis and Caityln Aune at Burbank to give the Coyotes a shot at a title. Ki-Be returns its top player, Abby Pendergast, but will get plenty of help from Momo Calzadillas. Connell will be led by returning all-leaguers Kassin Hopkins and Kendra Wallin, while River View brings back sophomore guard Aaliyah Anderson.
The SE 2B brings back six first-team performers, led by Emily Baumgart and Teresa Acock of DeSales. Dayton has three players — Sidney Andrews, Madison Mings and Shaylin Currin — who will make a difference, while TC Prep returns Devin Hirsch and Maddie Hill.
At the SE 1B level, Cierra Jo McKeown of Touchet is easily one of the top returning talents in the state. She’ll be joined by sophomores Katie Skramstad and Caitlin McGreevey. At Liberty Christian, Bella Loera and Karlee Souve provide strong leadership.