Both coaches face the same difficult challenge.
After winning league titles last year, Olympia’s Luke Salme and River Ridge’s Jeremy Landram will try to repeat as league champs with essentially new teams.
Salme returns just one starter off a 25-win team – Dominick Francks, a 6-3 guard with 3-ball range.
Landram has two starters back off an 18-win team that won the league title for the fourth straight year – Brad Wallace, a pogo stick guard who averaged 14 points a game and earned first-team all-league, and Howie Harper, a 6-4 forward who earned honorable mention all-league.
Olympia graduated three first-team all-league players.
“We lack varsity game experience and handling adversity,” Salme said. “But this group is extremely hard working, unselfish and motivated.”
River Ridge, winners of four straight league titles and five straight trips to state, will be counting on an uptempo offense and an in-your-grill defense aimed at forcing bad shots and turnovers.
“It’s all going to be based on what we do on the defensive end,” Landram said. “We always focus on that.”
With a guard-size lineup, Landram also wants to run the floor, forcing the fastbreak when his team can.
“We hope to run the floor,” Landram said. “We’ll need to with our lack of size.”
Rather than rebuild, both Salme and Landram hope to reload. Tradition will be on their side.
“These kids have learned what it takes to win,” Salme said.
Landram hopes a brutal non-league schedule that includes games against Battle Ground, Franklin Pierce, Foss, Olympia and Columbia River will help prepare his team for a run for another league title.
“By playing such a tough non-league schedule and never being able to take a night off, it prepares us for this league,” Landram said. “I’m not in this for wins and losses. I’m in this to have the best team that they can be by the end of the season.”
Salme will be filling the gaps with some players who were backup, role players last season. Now, it’s their turn to carry the scoring and play tight defense. At guard, Salme will be counting on Trevor Houser, the Bears’ starting quarterback on the football team, Austin Roth and Michael Naipo.
Brendan Leonard, a 6-foot-7, gives Salme some height and inside scoring at forward.
Salme will also be counting on last year’s junior varsity that finished 17-3.
In the race for the 2A Evergreen Conference title, River River will be challenged by Tumwater, North Thurston and Chehalis.
North Thurston has four returning starters off a team that finished 15-7 and is led by Landon Rushton, a 5-11 senior guard who was named the conference player of the year. Able to score off the drive or by pulling up for the outside jumper, Rushton averaged 21 points.
Also back for the Rams is Matt Reid, a 5-9 senior guard who averaged 12 points and was second-team all-league. Forwards Ben Broeker and Jacob Anderson are also returning starters.
“We should be a very experienced group,” North Thurston coach Tim Brown said. “Four kids have started two years. We have good speed and quickness and can shoot the ball a little bit.”
Tumwater, which finished last season 18-10 overall and 9-3 in league to place second, returns just two starters. Dan Hinkle, a senior guard who was the T-Birds starting quarterback on the football team, averaged 13.7 points and was second-team all-league. Josh Hanson, a senior center, averaged 5.8 points and was honorable mention all-league.
Also back for the T-Birds are guard Zach Boede, wing Conner Smith, guard Evan Gudbranson and center Jamie Bryant.
“We have a close, hard-working and talented group,” Tumwater coach Curtis Medved said. “We are relying on strong senior leadership to get us where we want to go.”
In the 3A Narrows League, Capital and Timberline will both be rebuilding. Capital returns two starters off a team that finished 13-7 and just missed the playoffs. Keenan, a 6-1 junior guard, and Mat Cox, a 6-5 junior center, both return after starting for the Cougars last season.
Capital coach Doug Galloway doesn’t have the dominate go-to scorer, so he’ll rely on a scoring by committee approach and a tough, pressure defense.
“We are going to be a scrappy team with a lot of heart,” Galloway said.
Capital’s two returning starters are Keenan Williams, a 6-1 junior guard, and Matt Cox, a 6-5 junior center. Galloway is counting on Jarod Eidenmuller, a 5-9 guard guard, to give the Cougars some added offense and defense.
“I’m optimistic,” Galloway said. “I think we will compete every night.”
Timberline doesn’t have any returning starters off a team that finished 6-14 last season. The Blazers’ top returning players are 6-5 center Cooper Podowicz, 6-3 center Drew Dixon, and 6-4 sophomore guard Donaven Dorsey.
Timberline coach Mike Tafoya said team could have trouble matching up with tall teams. The Blazers are missing that big, dominate center with a swat-the-shot presents on defense.
“Our length could cause problems for us,” Tafoya said. “But we have good team chemistry. This team plays well together.”
With his team’s inexperienced, Tafoya hopes to cover with hustle. In a 58-43 win against Shelton, Tafoya got the defense he wanted, holding the Highclimbers to under 50 points. Podowicz led the Blazers with 16 points and Dorsey added 10.
“We want to be the best team we can be,” Tafoya said. “We just focus on getting better. We want to compete for a playoff spot in the Narrows League”
At Black Hills, the Wolves have four players back who started at some point last season that included a wild and unexpected run to the playoffs. Two of those starters, power forward Jake Crawford and point guard Caleb Montelongo, combined for 33 points in an 84-49 blowout win against Hudson’s Bay in the Wolves’ season opener.
Tanner Johnson, an occasional starter last year, is the scorer, defender and rebounder Wolves coach Jamie Berg will use mostly as a spark coming off the bench this season. Johnson, although only 5-11, can play all five positions.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Berg said. “He can handle the ball, shoot, rebound. I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone who can rebound inside like he can.”
Black Hills used its speed to pull away from Hudson’s Bay, a 3A school, opening an 18-5 lead after the first quarter and 44-17 at halftime.
“The strength of this team is their togetherness,” Berg said. “These kids have played a long time together.”
While Black Hills has speed, it doesn’t have size.
“Our size would be something a bigger team can pick on,” Berg said. “But bigger teams are going to have to run with our small guys.”
Berg said the 2A Evergreen Conference is again tough from top to bottom.
“No one can take a night off,” the Black Hills coach said. “Everyone is good.”
“Our guys definitely work hard on both ends of the court,” Landram said. “If we don’t do things right as a team, we’ll definitely get beat.”
At Yelm, Dave Wasankari, in his second season as the Tornados head coach, will try to improve on last year’s 3-win season with a team that will have to rely on defense. Off to an 0-2 start after 10-point losses to Hoquiam and Gig Harbor, Yelm proved it’s not going to win any high-scoring shootouts.
“A lot of it is going to be getting stops and taking care of the ball,” Wasankari said. “Our heart and effort will make up for that.”
In a 52-42 loss at Gig Harbor, Yelm had no answer to Gig Harbor’s 6-foot-6, 245-pound center.
“We had nothing to match that,” Wasankari said. “We had to double him and do everything we could do to try and stop him.”
Yelm returns one starter in Jacob Swilley, a 5-10 junior point guard who moved into the starting lineup late in the season. Swilley, an all-league running back on the football team, is a playmaker who is good at getting the ball into the hands of an open teammate. He averaged nearly six assists last season.
“He’s the classic point guard,” Wasankari said. “He’s a leader on the court. He’s our best one-on-one defender.”
Besides Swilley, also starting for Yelm is forward Joe Zawislak, guard Bryan Miskimens, forward Johnny Jones and forward Kevin Collins.
“If we shoot the ball well and defend like we can and not turn the ball over, we’ll have opportunities to win some ballgames,” Wasankari said.