Sunday, March 11, 2012

Still fighting in the Scenic West

Since I have been writing for this blog, I have followed junior college basketball through the Scenic West and the College of Southern Idaho -- the winningest junior college in America.  A year ago the Eagles captured not only the Scenic West Championship (both regular season and tournament).   Then they won four games at the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas and the schools first national championship in 26 years.  It helps that my childhood friend is the head basketball coach of the Eagles.   I can only hope that nothing I write here is too confidential to injure that bond. 

I can also only hope to have a scent of the success that Steve has had over the past five years.  After being named the head coach, the program struggled through two rather down years by CSI standards and I too could here the calls from CSI boosters regarding the program and Steve's position as it's coach.   Steve took chances on highly skilled, but problematic players like Nate Miles (a Connecticut transfer), Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun called the best offensive player he had ever seen and Jostyn Thomas a nonqualifier academically with a 6'6" Apollo Creed type of body who's presence made NBA coaches salivate. 

After the two subpar season's Steve took a different approach, looking for players that bought into the team concept first and then had divison I potential second.  It has worked.  Last year the team won the national championship, his best player was named the Junior College Player of the year and just this week led Baylor past Kansas.  Steve was named the junior college coach of the year a year ago.   Besides the oncourt success last year and this year, Steve is raising three boys with his wife Lu and has made his team the center of the Twin Falls community.  

And too think we used to just waste hours drinking beer at the Stockman's. 

Some of the best basketball games I have ever seen involved Scenic West tournament games.   The only way to get to Hutchinson is to win the league tournament.   No matter how successful the regular season may have been the only way to get to the national tournament and receive the exposure that the players in the Scenic West covet is by winning this tournament.  This year is no different.   The 2008 Scenic West Final in Twin Falls, Idaho featuring Salt Lake Community College and what was then the number 1 ranked team in the country, the College of Southern Idaho still ranks as the best game I have ever seen.  (See link:

When you watch college basketball now it is impossible to not hear the names of CSI players.  Aziz Ndyi, Washington's center is a CSI alum.  CSI alum's have played at Hawaii, Portland State, Arizona State, Colorado State, Oklahoma, Utah, Utah State, Washington, Nevada, Boise State, Montana State, Weber State -- a seemingly limitless list of college basketball in the western United States. 

This week I was back to watching CSI basketball.  Following their national championship (a season in which I didn't watch even one game), they are more of a favorite than ever, but in closed discussions, the coaches, players and administrators know how hard winning is in this league.  The Friday night semifinals in Salt Lake City, Utah look more like an NCAA coaching convention than a game.   Following elimination during Championship Week, a college head or assistant coach wants to get back to work as quickly as possible either to take their mind off of that weeks loss or to be the first out of the gate toward next year's recruiting.   Talking with the North Idaho coaches and several other fans we spot assistant coaches from a variety of schools -- more than 20 are in attendance.  College wear from Oklahoma State, Wyoming, UCLA, Boise State and numerous coaches wearing golf shirts or polo shirts are present.  They are all looking for individual talent.  Yet the players on the court for the semifinal game between CSI and Snow College are playing as teams.  More as a team than most of the college games.

Every shot is contested.  In the second half, as an official, I strongly believe that the officials should be calling intentional fouls on Snow College as every shot that CSI attempts turns into an attempted tackle by Snow.  It's obvious, the Snow Coaches (Michael Ostlund and Jake Atwood) would rather see the Eagles shoot free throws than let them have an opportunity at the basket.   The Eagles shoot 66% for the game so it's not surprising that this is their theory.  One late breakaway attempt by Gerson Santo results in a pull down from behind, yet still no intentional foul is called. 

Unlike years past, CSI is using a completely half court offense that relies on the athletic guards and forwards driving to the basket looking to create layups or dishes to interior players.   They also isolate their post players more than in years past.   They seldom attempt three point shots, they rarely turn the ball over and it is a grind it out style that you see from teams that want to completely control the game.   On defense they pressure hard, looking to force turnovers in the half court. 

The game against Snow College is particularly intense.  At several points in the game the officials stop play because a player is lying (often away from the action) on the ground after a scuffle.  Snow's star and Southern Illinois commit Travis Wilkins has tissue stuffed up both nostrils to stop his nose from bleeding.  CSI center Paul Bunch breaks his nose.  Pat Swilling (yes, the son of the NFL's Pat Swilling) also of CSI "knows his wrist is broken" but refuses to be taken out of the game.  He doesn't want to miss this game or the run that CSI is on.  The game takes two and half hours, there is no overtime, it is just a case of coaches and players extending every second and looking for any advantage.  

Wilkins is a brilliant shooter who reminds me of a taller version of Brian Green from the 2008 SLCC squad.  When open he doesn't miss.   But CSI's quickness and athleticism overcome Snow's dogged determination.   The Eagles make enough free throws and get through the physical play to advance.

Between games, as it always does, the attention turns to officiating.   As a referee I try to stand up for the officials, but I too felt the intensity of Snow's fouls merited an intentional foul and although I try not to be to critical of any officials I can't help it.   Steve picked up a rare technical.  In fact he can only recall being whistled for one other technical during his time as the head coach.   Each coach is allowed one peremptory challenge of an official for the final game (the list includes the six officials that worked the semifinals).  After submitting his choice for an official to not work the final, almost incredibly, the same three officials will be back for Saturday night's championship game. 

The championship game is not as intense, but it is as close.  North Idaho opens up an eight point second half lead.  But again, CSI's quickness and athleticism take over and they are able to capture their second consecutive Scenic West tournament championship. 

As I walk out of the gym, I open up a conversation regarding CSI's lack of three point shooting.  "Well Kevin hit a couple," the man I'm speaking with says.  "Yes, he did," I reply, "he should get more opportunities."  I continue.  "I think he was 2/2 a 100% for the tournament."    "Yes," the man says, "that's my son."  He's the proud father of Eagle Kevin Attilla.  Attila once stated that the College of Southern Idaho was "his dream school."  See link:    Moments later Attila's father connects Kevin on a phone line with his father and Kevin's grandfather who is about to pass away.  Minutes later he does.  Hanging on to his life only so he could hear Kevin speak after the Scenic West championship. 

At this point I wonder what it will take for Steve to get an opportunity at the division I level.  He has spent the past ten years of his life looking for players either at CSI or Portland State.  He has now won this conference tournament two years in a row and the conference each of the past two years.  I am certain it will come after this season. 

Tuesday night, the Eagles will take on Arizona Western, the winner will advance to Hutchinson, Kansas for the national tournament.   

Friday, March 2, 2012

Little Snake River

I have not posted on this site in some time.  I try to balance my winter schedule with work and other events, however this year I have been particularly busy with my second "career".  On most Friday nights and Saturdays I am also a high school basketball official.  It pays a little money and I really enjoy the comraderie with the other officials.  Additionally, officiating keeps me close to the game that I love.  Unfortunately, it limits the time I am able to spend writing here.  Often I don't get home until after 11 pm on Friday night and my Saturdays are usually spent waking up early and heading off down the road to another high school for games that day.   It takes me away from the writing I enjoy here.  I have never touched on the high school game on this site.  But the story in Snake River is becoming impossible to ignore.  It is the stuff Sports Illustrated should be covering.  

This year was the first year I had ever had the privilege of going to Baggs,Wyoming.  What makes Baggs, Wyoming special is that it is precisely everything that the NBA and college game aren't.   There aren't million dollar contacts, coaches don't get bought out with hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The players don't transfer at their first moment of dissatisfaction with the program.  Their coach is also a preacher at the local church.  Think of Hickory, Indiana only a modern version. 

Little Snake River High School is in Baggs, Wyoming.  It's enrollment is only 60 kids, but it's boys and girls basketball teams are perhaps the best in the state.  (Maybe at any level)  Record wise it's high school boys and girls basketball teams are as good as any in the entire country.  Combined, entering this weekend (their state tournament) the squads are a combined 50-0.  A year ago the boys captured the State Championship while only losing once.  The current senior boys have won 33 consecutive home games, they have never lost in "The Snake Pit".  Their last home loss was against Encampment, before any of the seniors on this team had even entered high school
Baggs couldn't be more isolated.  It's two hours from Rock Springs and two hours from Laramie, Wyoming.  Four hours from Denver, Colorado.  To get there you drive along the most isolated part of I-80 take a right and drive 50 more miles.   If you blink you might miss the town and end up in Colorado. 

But the Little Snake River Rattlers are a magic act.  They don't lose.  "The Snake Pit" as their home court is called is always and their fans are always decked out in purple.   Their are only four rows of bleachers on each side of the court, but every time I have been to "the Snake Pit" it has been packed -- the entire community turning out.   Up until only last year the gym still featured the fan shaped backboards at it's respective ends.  Some locals were upset that they were taken away.   Of course as one fan told me, "we haven't lost with the new backboards."  

A couple of weeks ago I also officiated in Baggs and for their games against Cokeville there was a small smattering of media attention as the Cokeville girls represented what was likely the Rattler girls best chance at a loss this year.  A WyoPreps reporter and somebody from the Rawlins Times made the trip down.  It didn't happen as the Rattler's pulled away in the second half. 

Just like Lute and Bobbi Olson Court or John Wooden Court at the University of Arizona and UCLA respectively, Little Snake River named it's court after it's legendary coach -- Ed Reed.   Ed Reed Court is only an 84 foot court (see below), but the legenday coach spent 33 years coaching the Rattlers he won 465 games during his career and lost only 138.  His son Dale averaged 40 points per game as a senior and attended both the University of Iowa and Washington State University on a basketball scholarship.   I am told that Dale now coaches a top high school team in the Houston, Texas area.   Ed's photo is posted outside of the court named after him and he is in the Wyoming High School Hall of Fame.  An expert parent tells me that Ed occasionally attends Rattler road games closer to Wray, Colorado where he now makes his home. 

Is there another program in the country that can boast of both an undefeated boys and girls program?  I have not heard of one.  Each squad played an impressive nonconference schedule featuring almost exclusively Colorado High Schools.  They each won them all.  The boys team knocked off a top 10 2A Colorado team in Meeker, Colorado.  The girls have not been challenged this season either.   A fan tells me that Rawlins (a 3A school) in Carbon County won't play either the boys or the girls. 

In fact, the girls team has so much interest, that several girls don't even get to suit up.  A handful of them don't get to play jayvee (there is no jayvee girls game at the 1A level) and there are too many players for the varsity team.  They are forced to sit in dress clothes and watch as their undefeated colleagues and classmates continue their assault on Wyoming High School basketball. 

Before the games I officiate, I am given a tour of the school by one of the players.  He points out a display featuring a venomous rattlesnake with it's fangs protruding out.  An impressive reptile.   He tells me the story of how it ended up outside of the gym, "My daddy killed that snake -- with a rope," he says.    I am baffled by this?  How could anyone kill a snake with a rope?  Only in Wyoming, only in Little Snake River.  (The picture is below). 

At the captains meeting, I boldly announce that "there is not another place I would rather be on a Saturday afternoon. -- Not at an NBA game, not at any college game."  All the players seem confused by this as if there is something wrong with me.  But I know how special this is,  how the moments that these players are experiencing CANNOT be dupliated anywhere else in the country.  No other college or high school that I know of can boast of two undefeated teams.   It is a special environment. 

The Rattlers win both of their games on the day I ref (against Encampment) as they always do.  My guess is that they will end up undefeated and win a pair of state championships this weekend in Casper, Wyoming. 

As of this writing, the Snake River girls advanced to the 1A title game after defeating Farson.