Young Knights find plenty of ways to win
With five freshmen on the varsity roster, this season for the Columbia Christian High boys basketball team should be about gaining experience.
So far, though, the only thing the young Knights have experienced is winning.
Under the guidance of veteran coach Bart Valentine, Columbia Christian has cruised to a 20-0 record. The Class 2A Knights have wins over 4A Molalla and over three 3A teams — two of them ranked among the top 10 at 3A.
Even with two freshmen in the starting lineup, Columbia Christian has rolled to the top of the Northwest League. The Knights are ranked No. 2 by the Oregon School Activities Association behind Western Mennonite and are the only unbeaten 2A team.
"We're very, very young, but it's a real talented young group," Valentine says.
Ethan Bishop, a 6-5 post, is the only senior and the captain for a team that also starts a sophomore and one junior.
This is Valentine's second season as Knights coach. Encouraged by friends to guide a senior-led team in 2016-17, Valentine returned to coaching after a five-season break. He'd coached 36 seasons, 12 of them as the head coach for the Warner Pacific men.
"Working with young people on the court is pretty much the same at this level (as in college)," he says.
When he took the Columbia Christian job last season, Valentine made a five-year commitment. Now 65, he says he will coach as long as he enjoys it.
Valentine doesn't miss recruiting, a necessary part of coaching at the college level. At Columbia Christian, he spends time helping students away from the gym.
Last season's team placed fourth at the state tournament, then graduated the core of its roster. But Valentine — along with longtime Columbia Christian coach Jim Flint, who assists him — have plenty of raw talent to work with this season.
Four of the Knights' freshmen played for a dominant Columbia Christian eighth-grade team last season. The other freshman is 6-6 wing Ben Gregg, who averages 18 points and 12 rebounds per game.
A Clackamas resident, Gregg is the son of Warner Pacific women's basketball coach Matt Gregg. Valentine was the WPC athletic director who hired Matt Gregg for that job nine seasons ago.
Sophomore guard Isiah Mariscal averages just under 18 points per game for Columbia Christian. Valentine says Mariscal also is one of the best defenders in the Northwest League.
Dominic Blake, a 6-0 junior, is the starting point guard. He has settled into the role well and uses his quickness effectively, Valentine says.
The other freshman in the starting lineup is Elijah Munyan, a 6-1 wing. Valentine describes Munyan as a terrific athlete who is effective in transition and can slash to the basket.
Three juniors see significant minutes off the bench. Josh Hartman, 6-1, gives the club more 3-point shooting. Marquis Johnson provides size at 6-7 and is a strong defender and rebounder. Marcus Doyle, 6-1, is an athletic wing who can attack the rim.
When Columbia Christian needs a basket, Ben Gregg is a go-to player. He can score around the basket or from the perimeter.
The Knights have not really been tested yet. Their toughest competitor in the Northwest League is a senior-laden Knappa team that is right behind them in the OSAA 2A rankings. The Knights won the first meeting 66-46 at home. They will visit the North Coast on Tuesday, Feb. 6, for the rematch, a game Valentine says his team has circled.
Scoring is seldom a problem for these Knights, who average almost 70 points per game. The foundation of their quick success has been growth at the defensive end, according to Valentine.
"We are really good on the defensive end, and we are really big for our level," Valentine says. "The way we defend and rebound allows us to get out and run the floor."
Limiting fast-break opportunities is just one challenge for opponents. In the half-court, Valentine says, "I'm pretty comfortable just running our motion offense. When we just move and share the ball, we can usually get a good shot."
Given their youth, it will be interesting to see how the Knights handle postseason basketball.
Given their talent, the Knights have the look of a team that will be a 2A frontrunner for a while.