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Lions return to chase title No. 5 in 2017 state tournamnt

TIDINGS PHOTO: MILES VANCE - West Linn junior guard Jalen Thompson and the Lions are hoping to fly high for a fifth straight year at the Class 6A boys state basketball tournament.If resilience counts for anything, it would be foolish to count out the West Linn boys basketball team.

The Lions enter the 2017 Class 6A state tournament — they faced North Medford in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night — as four-time defending state champions, but there has been a world of changes in West Linn since last year.

Gone is three-time Player of the Year Payton Pritchard. Gone are all-tournament picks Anthony Mathis, Brooks De Bisschop and Colin Shearmire. Gone, too, is coach Eric Viuhkola, who led the team for eight years, including those four straight state championships.

That said, the Lions came back strong in 2016-17, and enter this year's tournament with a Three Rivers League championship, a 21-4 season record, a 15-game winning streak and the No. 2 ranking in the state.

And they think they've got what it takes to win again.

"As a team, we're so talented, if we stay healthy, anything can happen," said senior guard Braden Olsen, who took over at point guard this year and averages just under 14 points, almost eight assists and three steals per game. "We can beat anyone, we can play with anyone, so it's going to be fun."

"All we're worried about is getting a ring" — Senior guard Rodney Hounshell

"That's the main thing right now," added Hounshell, who averages almost nine points per game along with 2.1 rebounds and 2.3 steals. "We have to come out every day and attack. We have to come out and let everyone know we want this."

How West Linn got back to the state tournament, however, has been interesting to say the least.

The Lions graduated eight seniors off last year's team, and the six underclassmen who played in last year's title contest combined for just seven points in their 74-48 title win over South Medford. Further, two of those six will not play in this year's state tournament (Tim Tawa chose not to play basketball this year, while senior guard Michael Hadeed is injured) and just one — Olsen — plays significant minutes this season.

In the wake of all those losses, the Lions came back under new head coach Tyler Toney — he had served as an assistant to Viuhkola for five years — and with a roster bolstered by four high-profile transfers.

The 2016-17 version of the Lions — which includes program players Olsen, Aidan Scott, Jalen Thompson, Hadeed, Drayton Caoile, Nathan Dombrow, Ryan Schmid and Jake Luther — also added 6-foot-9 senior wing Khalid Thomas from South Salem, 6-6 junior post Keishon Dawkins from Tigard, Hounshell (a 6-3 senior guard) and 6-5 senior guard Nolan Bertain from Beaverton.

The addition of that quartet, along with some talented freshmen transfers, set off a firestorm of controversy, with critics attacking the Lions from all angles, accusing them of recruiting players, putting the program's success ahead of everything else and much, much more.

Those additions, along with the transition to a new head coach and a killer non-league schedule, made for some rough spots early in the season. Indeed, West Linn went just 3-3 in its first six games, those losses coming to Shadow Mountain of Arizona, Garfield High of Washington and Clackamas, that last loss snapping the Lions' 37-game in-state winning streak.

Throw in occasional bouts with injuries for Hounshell (sore knee), Olsen (sprained foot), Thomas (a strained knee in the playoff opener) and Hadeed (injured hand), and a minor stroke that sidelined Toney for four games in February and you begin to get an idea of the roller-coaster that West Linn's 2016-17 season has turned out to be.

Through it all, however, the Lions have drawn together, formed a team and proven their ability to beat almost any team they've faced.

Following their 82-74 loss to Shadow Mountain, two of the Lions' other three losses came by a total of just three points, their only significant setback a 90-77 defeat at the hands of top-ranked Jefferson in the MLK Classic on Jan. 16.

With all that as pretext, the Lions say they are ready to challenge for what would be an unprecedented fifth consecutive state championship (West Linn and Jesuit are the only big-school teams in Oregon history with four straight state titles).

"At the beginning of the year, people were saying 'They can't share the ball, blah blah blah,'" said Bertain, who shoots 43 percent on three-pointers. "Everyone on the team shares the ball. I don't think anyone cares about how many points they're getting. I think we share the ball better than any team in the state."

"We've just got to make sure our defense is good," said Dawkins, who averages 15 points and seven rebounds. "It's defense, definitely. If we keep our defense like it was (against Madison), we're definitely think we can win it."

The Lions also get more than 16 points per game, eight rebounds and three steals per game from Thomas, who was named second-team all-tournament for South Salem a year ago and first-team all-Three Rivers League this season.

"When we come out prepared, we can beat anybody," Olsen added. The key "will be taking the right shots and playing defense."

Contact Sports Editor Miles Vance at 503-330-0127 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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