VALE – Before a spate of non-league games in December, Vale boys basketball coach Colby Shira didn’t consider the season to be for rebuilding.
Sure, the Viking squad he planned to put on the court was young and faced the long December schedule without a crop of seniors who propelled Vale to a sixth-place finish in the 2022 state tournament.
Gone from the Vale team as it began the new season were such senior impact players as John Wolfe, Tanner Steele and Kade Kurata.
There was room for optimism, though. The Vikings could count on the return of 6-foot-6 junior forward Diesel Johnson along with several other players including junior guard Brooks Haueter to help Vale in the early going.
Then Haueter was sidelined with a lingering football injury, out for the season.
“He was a big piece to what we had going on last year,” said Shira.
The team also did not jell as fast as Shira wanted.
“It didn’t start out to be a rebuilding year. But there was a lot of rebuilding going on,” said Shira.
Now, weeks away from a dismal 3-7 December record, the Vikings stand at 7-1 – on the strength of back-to-back league wins Feb 3 and Feb. 4 – and firmly in the driver’s seat to end the season at no worse then second in the league.
“It’s been a work in progress,” said Johnson last week at practice.
The tough December schedule when Vale faced several Idaho teams with significant winning records helped the Vikings, said Shira.
“By playing tougher teams early it made us better,” said Shira.
When the Vikings entered league play in Jan. 6, they beat McLoughlin 53-39 at Milton-Freewater.
The game wasn’t exactly pivotal, but it showed early promise. Vale then defeated 4A Ontario before losing to Burns 58-44 on Jan. 12.
“We didn’t play overly well against Burns,” said Shira.
After the Burns game, though, Vale racked up a four-game league win streak. Slowly, but surely, the Vikings were beginning to jell, said Shira.
“A lot of guys had to step up and there were a lot of growing pains,” he said.
Johnson conceded the team faced early season woes.
“We struggled. But now we have started playing as a team,” he said.
A key turning point for the young Vikings was the three-game road stint where Vale beat Riverside, Umatilla and McLoughlin.
“We’ve learned how to win games differently than we did last year,” said Shira.
The 2021-2022 squad used multiple talents on any given night but the current edition of the Vikings is different, said Shira.
“Last year we had four or five guys that could score in double digits every night. But we don’t have the personnel to win games like that this year. So, we are relying on a couple of kids,” said Shira.
Statistics from Vale’s Eastern Oregon League play show Johnson is one of those players.
As of last week, and over six league games, Johnson has averaged 17.5 points per game.
Junior Colton Stepleton over the same time period averaged 9.2 points per game.
While Johnson paces the Viking attack, the rest of the Vale squad evolved into a team with balance.
“Diesel leads us in points most nights but Luke McGourty has come on for us in the last few games. After that, it is a collective of people scoring for us,” said Shira.
McGourty, a junior, said the theme for this year’s Viking squad is resiliency.
“We’ve overcome a lot at the beginning. We didn’t have a lot of team chemistry. But we had a lot of meetings, started to hang out with each other,” he said.
Like Shira, McGourty said the tough non-league schedule proved good for the Vikings.
“It helped us, helped us get better,” he said.
Stepleton said the team “started off slow” but “I think we are coming together.”
Shira said the Vikings still must overcome some significant obstacles, including a game against league-leading Burns (8-0) on Saturday, Feb. 11. That’s the final game in league play.
“Our goal was to win league and it is still within our grasp,” said Shira.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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