PREP FOCUS/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Big guys at rim, strong guard ready to chase state title

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Former Alaska prep Kamaka Hepa returns to Jefferson High for his second season and will help lead the Democrats' bid to repeat as state champion.The last time we saw the Jefferson High boys basketball team, Geno West was scoring nine late points and Thomas Miles was hitting 7 of 12 shots to lift the Democrats to a win over Clackamas in the 2017 Class 6A championship game.

West and Miles, senior leaders of that team, put opponents under pressure with their long-range shooting.

West is now at Idaho and Miles at the College of Southern Idaho, but the Democrats are no long-shot to repeat as state champs.

With the return of 6-10 Texas Longhorns' commit Kamaka Hepa and rangy guard Marcus Tsohonis — plus the arrival of three notable transfers and a couple of high-potential freshmen — Jefferson's target is no different than it is most seasons.

"If we rebound and play defense, we can keep the trophy at home," coach Pat Strickland says.

The journey begins Wednesday, when the Demos tip off their season with a Portland Interscholastic League home game against Benson. On Thursday morning, the Demos fly to Hawaii, where they will play four games over seven days at the Iolani Classic Invitational. That will be followed by the Les Schwab Invitational Dec. 27-30 at Liberty High.

Their first PIL showdown comes on Jan. 6 against host Grant on the Marshall Campus. On Jan. 15, the Democrats will face West Linn at Lewis & Clark College.

Strickland, in his 10th season as Demos' head coach after 10 seasons as an assistant to Marshall Haskins, believes this is one of the tougher nonleague schedules for any of his teams. But the talent, as usual, is there for big success.

"If we come out and compete and we have energy and we're together and we're a team, that gives us a shot against anybody," Strickland says. "That's what I'm expecting."

And why not? The two starters returning from last season's championship team are future Division I college players. Hepa, a senior, is back for a second season at Jefferson. Tsohonis, a 6-5 junior, is being recruited by Pac-12 and other programs.

Hepa says his choice came down to clicking with Texas coach Shaka Smart and assistant coach Darren Horn.

"I felt like we built a really great relationship in the last year and a half. It felt really genuine," Hepa says.

The other player who got significant minutes for last season's team is senior guard Robert Ford, who figures to move into the starting lineup.

The arrival of Khalil Chatman, a 6-8 senior also being recruited by Division I programs and who was all-PIL as a junior for Franklin last season, gives Jefferson a size match-up challenge for many opponents.

Guards Jalen Brown, a junior who was a role player at Vancouver's Union High last season, and senior K'lum Strickland, from Roosevelt are transfers who will play perimeter roles. K'lum Strickland is Pat Strickland's nephew. Senior guard Romeo Akil, fresh off a productive year as a receiver for the Demos' football team, also is poised for a strong season.

After using their outside shooting to break through as a 6A school last season, the foundation of the 2017-18 Democrats figures to be around the basket. In addition to Hepa and Chatman, Jefferson has 6-10 junior Andrew Graves (who is sidelined until January with an injury). Add freshmen Nate Rawlins-Kibonge (6-6) and Rayven Turner (6-5) and junior Charles Taylor (6-6) and Strickland loves the length on his roster.

"I like what we've got. We've got a big, tall, long group," he says.

Hepa, who moved to Portland from Alaska last year to improve his exposure to college coaches, says he is ready to make the most of his final high school season before heading to Austin, Texas.

"It was kind of a weight off my shoulders," he says of committing to Texas, which he chose instead of Gonzaga. "It allowed me to be free in my basketball. I don't have to worry about the recruiting process anymore, so I can focus more on my high school season."

The addition of Chatman, who has a scholarship offer from Montana State, gives the Democrats a match-up advantage inside against many opponents.

"We'll definitely work inside out just because of the attention we will attract," Hepa says.

While Hepa experienced the recruiting process last season, Tsohonis is getting plenty of attention from college coaches after playing alongside Hepa at several major AAU tournaments during the summer.

"I enjoy it," Tsohonis says of the attention from college coaches.

Having big guys inside might take some attention away from Tsohonis this season. But Strickland wants Tsohonis to play tougher, as well.

"Our season, really, is going to be predicated on how tough he plays. We've got the bigs, we need guard play," Strickland says.

The coach expects Tsohonis to deliver.

"I have all the confidence in the world in him to make the big shot or the big play," Strickland says.

To prepare to be more assertive and post up shorter defenders, Tsohonis says he improved his strength. For the team, he envisions replacing momentum-building 3-pointers with more dunks.

"I feel like we're a scrappier team this year because we're bigger," Tsohonis says. "We're going to get in transition. You've going to see a lot of dunks. Last year, we had a couple high fliers, but everybody in our starting lineup can get up to the rim."

Hepa, who can bring the ball up the court or shoot from the perimeter, if needed, is not sure what role he might play for Coach Smart's Longhorns.

"I wouldn't limit myself to a position. I recognize myself as a (complete) player," Hepa says.

Before he gets to the next level, Hepa wants to help Jefferson make a strong run at another state title. And he says if the Demos reach that pinnacle, it won't be only because they have another group of talented basketball players. If it happens, it will be because the newcomers — as he was only a year ago — embrace the Jefferson basketball culture.

"I don't think people understand how hard we work at Jefferson to win games and win championships," Hepa says.

With that in mind, Hepa's focus over the summer was improving his "killer instinct."

"The biggest thing I worked on wasn't any individual skill, but more working on my mentality, on being aggressive and looking to score and also getting my teammates involved," Hepa says. "That's where a lot of coaches personally have told me that being aggressive is not something that I lack but is not where I should be at."

Jefferson's success in 2017-18 depends on more than just having improved versions of Hepa and Tsohonis. Strickland sees the PIL — with Grant returning the core of a state tournament team and Lincoln and Madison off to promising starts — as the toughest 6A league in Oregon. And no game on any PIL opponent's schedule is as big as the Jeff game, which is something the newcomers need to understand.

"We just tell them that there's a target on your back. Nobody likes you," Ford says of the message to the newcomers. "Nobody really wants you to do what we're here to do. So you've got to stay on it. Stay with the grind. Stay focused in the classroom to get everything done."

Strickland calls this the transfer era, that success attracts talent and that he just coaches the players who enroll at Jefferson. He notes that other successful programs such as West Linn have drawn transfers because of their success and that the trend of great players teaming up is part of today's basketball culture from the NBA on down.

Strickland is looking to Hepa, Tsohonis and Ford to become the leaders on this season's journey.

"I'm hoping that we get some leadership from the guys who are coming back, the guys who have been through the battles and know the target is on their back," Strickland says. "At the same time, I'll be drilling it in their heads daily, hourly, 'Remember how it feels when teams in this state beat us and they mob the court.'"

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