The Richland Bombers have been the most exciting basketball team in the Mid-Columbia Conference for the past few seasons, winning three MCC titles in a row and making three consecutive runs to the Class 4A state tournament.
Led by then-junior guards Steven Beo and Landon Radliff, the Bombers almost made it look easy in 2014-15, outscoring teams by an average of 14 points a game during a near-perfect (13-1) conference slate.
Richland won’t have it so easy this season with two strong contenders in Chiawana and Kamiakin, and a slew of other hungry teams including Hanford, Kennewick and Walla Walla — any one of whom could make a late-season trip to Tacoma.
“It’s a really good league this year. When people come out to watch the kids play, they should see some good basketball,” Kamiakin coach Brian Meneely said.
Southridge coach D.J. Traver said it best. Richland will be the favorite until someone knocks the Bombers off. They have a good mix of experience (Beo, Radliff and Ryan Wagar are returning starters) and a good base of young talent led by 7-foot sophomore center Riley Sorn.
“They are very coachable, and our size gives us options that we have not had in the past. They are like a lot of presents under the tree right now. Not really sure what you have until you unwrap them,” Richland coach Earl Streufert said.
Standing right in the Bombers’ way will be Chiawana, which has been waylaid by injuries the past two seasons — point guard Cayden Cazier missed all but eight games the past two seasons with a knee injury — but is healthy (knock on wood) at the moment. Any one of the Riverhawks’ starting five — Cazier, Andrey Voloshin, Tre Joseph, Chandler Hansen and Jalen King (a transfer from Pasco) — can take over a game, an unusual but welcome circumstance for coach Chad Herron.
“This is an experienced group that’s hungry to succeed,” he said. “They put in a lot of time in the offseason.”
At Kamiakin, Meneely has been working hard to return to state since making a two-year run in 2011-12. He has the horses to do it, with good size from 6-7 posts Hayden Nelson and Scott Larson and strong guard play from Isaiah Brimmer and Garrett Paxton.
The Kennewick Lions have just one returning starter — forward Dillon Plew — but cannot be taken lightly with Nico Benavidez pouring in the points at guard. The Lions are known for their scrappy defense and ability to shoot, a combination that can keep them in any game.
Hanford has three returning starters — Jacob Sivonen, Will Eldred and Ben Seaman — who contributed heavily last year to a team that won nine of its first 10 games. Falcons coach Paul Mayer is also impressed with freshman forward Blake VanderTop.
Walla Walla is hoping to take advantage of four returning starters, led by all-MCC post Andrew Harvey, as well as four other players who saw varsity experience. The Blue Devils already have posted impressive wins over Davis, Kennewick and Moses Lake.
Southridge returns its leading scorer in Gabe Vorheis (10.9 ppg) and recently handed Kamiakin its first loss of the season. Pasco had a rough season last year, winning just one league game. Guard Noah Elizondo (8.0 ppg) is the Bulldogs’ top returning scorer.
BATTLE OF THE BIG MEN
Not since Scot Pollard led the Kamiakin Braves to a pair of top-four finishes in 1992-93 has a 7-footer graced the floors of Mid-Columbia gyms. Sorn may not have quite the impact that Pollard — an 11-year NBA veteran — did for Kamiakin, but Streufert has been quite impressed with his progress and says he is making a big difference.
“This year’s team will play more zone than we usually do. A 7-footer will make you re-think your defensive philosophy,” Streufert said.
But Sorn won’t be the only big man out there. When the Bombers square off with Chiawana, expect an exciting matchup between Sorn and King, the Riverhawks’ 6-10 junior who recently had 20 rebounds and seven blocks in a game. If Sorn should get into foul trouble, 6-9 teammate Gabe Smith could be a presence inside as well.
Kamiakin used a pair of big men to anchor it’s last trip to state and will no doubt use Nelson and Larson to create mismatches in the middle.
Kennewick’s Sam Szendre, a 6-8 post, earned his stripes playing strong minutes for the Lions last year. While King is gone at Pasco, 6-6 Sebastian Gutierrez will do his best to fill the void.
Three MCC coaches — Mayer (281 wins), Pasco’s Mike Guajardo (277) and Streufert (269) — rank in the top 150 Washington coaches in career coaching victories, and Herron (186) is a good bet to climb into the top 200 if his team fulfills its potential (Bruce Seibol ranks 200th with 205 wins). But a few coaching assistants around the league have won their fair share of games as well.
Phil Neill (298), who led Richland to a state championship in 1979 and coached 18 seasons there, is coaching the Bombers’ freshman team along with his longtime assistant Jim Castleberry.
Former Southridge and Ellensburg coach Reid Preppernau (296) has been the “big man” coach at Kamiakin for the past 10 seasons.
SAVE THE DATE
You won’t have to wait long to see two of the MCC’s top teams battle it out. Richland (4-2) visits Chiawana (6-1) at 7:30 p.m. today .
Here are some more key matchups: Jan. 8, Kamiakin at Kennewick, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 9, Richland at Kamiakin, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 19, Chiawana at Richland, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 22, Chiawana at Hanford, 7:30 p.m.