How would Cascade Christian sophomore Donminic Lewis describe the opening five weeks to his first true varsity campaign?
In a word, Lewis simply replies, “disheartening.”
And why wouldn’t that be the answer? As one of the state’s top Class 3A boys basketball programs for years under head coach Brian Morse, the Challengers weren’t off to a very Challenger-like start to the 2018-19 campaign.
A mix of team-wide inexperience after graduating nine seniors and a schedule loaded with top foes left Cascade Christian largely overmatched early on en route to a 1-12 start to the season.
But my oh my, what a difference it has been over the last few weeks.
Highlighted by last Friday’s 64-63 overtime victory over crosstown rival St. Mary’s, the Challengers suddenly find themselves in the driver’s seat to nab a No. 2 seed out of the Far West League and a state playoff berth.
“If you asked me in December, I would just be happy that we got a couple wins during the season,” said Lewis on Monday. “Playoffs was definitely a dream, and it’s crazy that it’s a reality now.”
For a peek at last Friday's big win, click here:
Cascade Christian has won six of its last eight games to climb into a second-place tie with Brookings-Harbor at 6-3 in FWL play and 8-15 overall. Those two teams meet Tuesday in Brookings for the regular season finale — the Challengers won the first meeting 57-56 at home — and the right to play host to whoever settles in as the No. 3 seed in a league playoff on Friday.
“It’s good to see that they’re doing well,” said coach Morse. “Obviously, I want to go as far as we can with these kids because every big game like this helps us for next year and helps these kids be able to compete in a big atmosphere, kind of like what we had in the Friday night game. That was such a great atmosphere.”
“The further we get, the better this team is going to be for the future.”
And make no bones about it, the future is what this year’s team has been all about.
On Friday against St. Mary’s, Cascade Christian had three sophomores and two juniors among its starting five players, with Logan Flenner making the only senior appearance in limited minutes.
“It has definitely been a challenge, but we kind of knew going into it that it was going to be a tough year,” said Morse. “Nobody would believe me when I said we lost a lot and it was going to be tough.”
Tack on the fact that Morse routinely attempts to build as challenging of a schedule as possible with top-tier 3A opponents and 4A programs — often on the road — and he could have been in danger of losing his team before the FWL campaign rolled in.
Fortunately, the Challenger players didn’t let that happen. They kept a good attitude, stayed with it and believed that their hard work and lumps taken would one day pay off.
“It was disheartening after our first couple of losses and stuff,” said Lewis, “but during practice we could tell that we were getting better and just growing more confident. I think it showed in a couple of the games where even if we lost, it was a close game, so we knew we weren’t too far off.”
Said Morse: “That was the one benefit to having young kids. The bad news is they’re inexperienced, but the younger the kids are, the more coachable they are. They don’t know the wins and losses as bad as the juniors and seniors, so basically I kept telling them that this is one of the toughest preseason schedules that I’ve ever had and I know you guys are getting thrown to the wolves by playing all these top-five teams in the state but it will benefit you guys when you get into league.”
As a coach in his 31st season at Cascade Christian, Morse also knew a little about the trends that typically take place during a season.
“For coaching so long, I know how it works,” he said. “Rarely do the seniors improve. The juniors improve a little bit by the end of the year, and the sophomores and freshmen improve a ton just because of their learning curve. I knew that we had so many sophomores that by the end of the year some of the guys that we weren’t expecting would be playing well and starting and contributing well for us.”
That certainly has been the case during FWL play, with the Challengers embracing their underdog role as well as leaning on one another to get them through the rough start.
“Already being great friends off the court and having each other’s backs played a big role in our ability to just stay together through it all,” said Lewis, who leads Cascade Christian at 13.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.8 assists per game. “We all know what each other’s abilities are and we just try to play off each other.”
Morse credits the likes of junior Kiegan Schaan and Lewis for their leadership qualities on the court and in the locker room, and gives a nod to Flenner for his role in helping motivate players during practice and providing some mental leadership to his younger teammates.
Junior guard Layne Collom averages 11.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, while Schaan contributes 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals. They help serve as stabilizing forces to younger peers like sophomores Levi Sciapiti (5.4 points, 2.8 rebounds), Nathan Spurlock (5.3 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Braydn Coppedge, who had four points and five boards against St. Mary’s, and freshman Cody Reece.
“We’re playing the best basketball that we’ve played all year now,” said Morse, “and, of course, that’s what you want to be doing at this time of the year.”
The work, however, is far from done for the Challengers.
A win over Brookings-Harbor on Tuesday means a home date for Cascade Christian in the FWL playoff between the Nos. 2-3 teams for an automatic state playoff berth to join Sutherlin, which has already sewn up the league title at 9-0 entering Tuesday’s game at St. Mary’s.
A loss to Brookings-Harbor elevates the Bruins to the No. 2 spot and either leaves the Challengers alone in third or, potentially, in a third-place tie with St. Mary’s should the Crusaders beat Sutherlin, which will be playing without three of its top players after team violations led to a recent two-week suspension.
Should there be a tie for third between Cascade Christian and St. Mary’s, those two teams would meet at a neutral gym on Thursday for the right to play at Brookings-Harbor on Friday. The Bruins hold a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over St. Mary’s so there would be no such neutral game needed if those teams fell into a third-place tie.
That potential FWL playoff breakdown is a reason why last Friday’s win was so vital for the Challengers. Had St. Mary’s been able to drop in either of its tip-in efforts in the final seconds, Cascade Christian’s season very likely would have timed out Tuesday.
“It was definitely a great win,” said the 16-year-old Lewis, who scored five of his team-high 22 points in OT. “After sitting back a couple days and thinking about it, I just think it gave us a lot of momentum and confidence coming into this Brookings game.”
“Really all this late season stuff has given us the confidence that we’re actually a good team and very talented,” he added, “and we can use this in the offseason and heading into next season.”