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Senior point guard becoming more and more of a leader for the offensively gifted Apollos

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset guards Eli Vernon, Kell Estep and Braeden Sato celebrate a great Sato assist against Newberg.

The leader looked around the once again dejected locker room suffering through a temporary state of de ja vu and decided enough was enough.

The buck stopped with Braeden Sato. After losing to North Medford for the second time in nine months, only in this instance without the threat of elimination looming, the Sunset senior stood up in the circle of his teammates and bore the blame. Surely, he wasn't the sole cause as to why the Apollos lost. Sato alone wasn't the reason Sunset didn't reach the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs last year. Quite the opposite in fact.

The two-time first-team All-Metro point guard's heroics helped Sunset beat eventual state champion Jesuit in triple overtime. His enticing, impactful all-around game guided the Apollos to within a game of taking the Metro title for the first time since 2014. Sato has been Sunset's stimulant ever since he slipped on a white and purple jersey.

But back then, Sato said he felt he let his program down. This is his team, his crew, his cast of close friends. They look to him because he's been there, done that, spectacularly. And in an important early-season instance when Sato could've pointed the finger or skirted the culpability, the point guard put Sunset's non-league loss to North Medford on his shoulders. His shotmaking could've been keener. His decision making in closing time could have been more polished. Defensively, he could've helped out more.

Sato didn't shrink as he looked his teammates in the eyes, with his shoulders back, voice clear and assured them, he'd step up, that he would be better moving forward. This is what a captain does, accepts responsibility, looks inward, moves forward. Sato has his boys' back, just as they have his. And while it's still very early in the season, that poignant moment in North Medford's away locker room, hundreds of miles from home, could actually be the turning point in Sunset's season.

This Apollo team can win Metro. It can reach the elite eight. It can challenge the state's established elites. But it can't do so as a team divided. Down the stretch, Sato said, Sunset came apart a bit at the seams, losing three straight games, splintering when it needed solidarity. Yet, that won't happen again. Everything the Apollos seek is out in front of them if they can stay connected, starting at the top with him. Last year was a learning experience for all involved, including Sato. How to handle prosperity. How to persevere through trying times. How to handle the pressure of the playoffs, the spotlight of a state always looking for a new intriguing team to emerge. It was on-the-job training for Apollos such as Sato, Colby King, Kell Estep, Eli Vernon and Reece Arenz who are back and out to fulfill their destiny ahead.

"I did a terrible job of leading last year," Sato said. "I was one of the main causes of why we started falling down. I was going through a lot of things off the court. I didn't shoot the ball well on the court. That got to me and everything just went downhill. But I'm trying to change that role. I'm trying to be positive no matter what. Hopefully, I can be that leader. I have to stay up. Even if I go 0-for-20, I have to stay up. If my shot isn't falling, I can move the ball, get assists, rebound, hustle, play defense."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior forward Kell Estep is one of many Apollos who bring an array of skills to the floor.

Sato's reputation as a player precedes him at this point in his illustrious career. He's a silky smooth, denotatively quick guard who can give any defender 30 points with his mix of unending shooting range, ankle-snatching handles and butter-soft float game. Sato is the most entertaining watch in Metro, maybe since the days of Jesuit's early 2010's dynasty. Against Newberg last week, Sato fired a nasty one-handed bounce pass through a wave of Tiger arms from the other side of half court to a streaking Estep for two. Later he nonchalantly dribbled the ball twice behind his back and then blew by his defender with a dizzying crossover that finished with an underhanded scoop high off the glass. His bag of tricks is Santa Claus' sized.

But what makes Sunset most dangerous is the players around its star. The Apollos don't have much in terms of height. King, Estep and junior Tate Reese are all 6-foot-4 but they're more wing than post. Vernon, Arenz and Sato are all about 6-foot on a good day. Yet, that's where Sunset's potential becomes captivating. Estep and King are physical enough to fend off taller posts in the paint. All five Apollos can pressure the ball, switch if necessary and gang rebound defensively. Best of all every Sunset player is skilled, quick, crafty with the rock and capable of knocking down shots from deep. Sato said Sunset shoots for 70 offensive possessions a game. That means getting the ball, pushing the gas pedal through the floor offensively, finding the best shot possible and letting it fly. When the pace is at its fastest and fiercest, Sunset will be at its optimal peak. Head coach Todd Sherwood gives his guys the green light and gives them a longer rope when it comes to making mistakes. Essentially, Sunset can station five guards on the court at all times, determine the weak link and exploit it.

"We're small but speedy and that's how I like to play, fast," Sato said. "Just going back and forth is really fun to me. We want to get the pace going. We like to attack because we have shooters all around. (Sherwood) respects us and gives us a lot of freedom. We have a lot of scorers, too. That's what this team can do really well."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior guard Eli Vernon has moved into the starting lineup for the Apollos this season.

Anybody with any sort of basketball mind could see Estep was going to be a player. His older brother, Jake, was a star at Beaverton who now plays at the collegiate level. Kell, in some ways, is a spitting image of Jake, from the way they move to their shooting form to some of their off-the-dribble moves. But Kell might be more athletic with a better penchant for running the floor. The junior is tough like his brother, not afraid to bang among the trees, and like his older Apollo teammates loves playing the game when the speed is turned up.

"Kell works on his game every day, I respect that boy so much," Sato said. "We've been talking a lot about our games and where we should find each other on the court. We know each other well."

King is out for the next few weeks with a knee injury. But the second-team All-Metro forward has already proven himself on the big stage in the Metro meat grinder. He's a big-time shot-maker in the clutch, too big for smaller guards, too fast for posts to contain. King and Estep will make for a ferocious one-two punch at the forward spot once everybody is healthy and on the same page again.

Vernon and Arenz are Sunset's passion producers. They bring a swagger and unwavering confidence to the court every time they come to play. It's no wonder that duo and Sato seem to have a great connection when they're on the floor together.

"Eli and I are best friends outside of the court, same with Reece," Sato said. "That's a great relationship. These guys are my friends, guys I hope to have relationships with my whole life. We're getting the chemistry up with (junior varsity) guys who are new. I'd say we have a good bond going on."

A year ago, Vernon and Arenz were part of the Apollo bench mob that changed games with their full-court defensive intensity and propensity to make huge shots in big moments, all the while keeping the game live and hyped. For all their competitive juice, each guard has a great mind for the game and an understanding of what their role is on the team. Vernon looks greatly improved on the offensive end, showing a more confident offensive game, especially getting to the cup. Arenz never runs out of courage. He's the defensive heart and soul of this team with a deadeye three-point shot and an expanding straight-line game with either hand finishing ability.

Sunset has started the season 3-1 with non-league games against Century and South Eugene ahead. Additionally, the Apollos will play in the Les Schwab Eight beginning with a date against De La Salle on Jan. 2 at Liberty High School.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior guard Reece Arenz and the Apollos have Class 6A elite eight potential this year.

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