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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/High basketball IQ helps 6-8 standout lead Columbia Christian on quest for repeat 2A title

COURTESY: JOSH THOMAS - A 6-8 sophomore, Ben Gregg has helped lift Columbia Christian to the No. 1 ranking in Class 2A going into this week's state tournament at Pendleton.There's a Portland-area high school sophomore who has the full attention of major-college basketball scouts, and he's not from a traditional power.

Ben Gregg is a 6-8, 210-pound sophomore at Northeast Portland's tiny Columbia Christian High, which won the Class 2A championship a year ago and is the favorite to repeat this weekend in Pendleton.

Gregg was the Northwest League's Player of the Year this season, averaging 23 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and three steals for the Knights (26-2 overall, 16-0 in league play).

"I've coached 43 years, and to me, he is a generational player," says Columbia Christian coach Bart Valentine, who coached 11 years at Warner Pacific and guided West Linn to the state 6A title in 1997. "Every piece of his game and of his person are top-notch. He's as fine as a player as I've ever coached. He is going to be far better than any college player I've coached."

Valentine's Knights aren't just beating up on their 2A brethren. In the Les Schwab Invitational in December, they knocked off both Southridge and Barlow, becoming the smallest school to win a game at the annual high-octane prep tournament at Liberty High. Defending 6A champion Grant had to rally to beat the Knights 58-54. Not bad for a school with an enrollment of 99.

"We should have beaten (the Generals), too," Gregg says. "We led them most of the way. We knew in our minds we could beat those teams. We know the talent we have. We should have won three."

Even so, Gregg says, "playing in the Les Schwab was an eye-opening experience for us, to play against the top competition. We competed very well and showed what we can do. We're looking forward to the state (2A) tournament and hopefully making a run at a championship again."

Gregg led the 16-team Les Schwab event — which included three high-level teams from other parts of the country — in rebounds (15.8 per game in four games) and blocked shots (3.5), was third in assists (4.3) and fifth in scoring (23.3).

Gregg, son of Warner Pacific women's coach Matt Gregg, made the five-man all-tourney team along with Grant's Aaron Deloney and players from University School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, California, and Gonzaga Prep in Spokane.

"That's playing against the best kids around, and statistically, Ben was as good anybody there," Valentine says. "I wouldn't trade him for any player in Oregon."

Gregg had 30 points and 17 rebounds in an 80-78 overtime win over Barlow.

"I was impressed with most everything about him," says Tom Johnson, the Bruins' veteran coach. "He has a great understanding and feel for the game. He's multifaceted. He can shoot, he can score in the post, and he's a very good passer. Because of his size and athleticism, we had a hard time getting anything at the rim against him. He anticipates well. He's a really good player for his age, and he's going to be a very good college player, too."

Gregg averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds as a freshman, leading Columbia Christian to a 30-1 record. He had 23 points and 19 rebounds in a 65-61 state championship game win over Western Mennonite and broke the 2A tournament record with 43 rebounds in his three games.

This year's state tourney starts Friday, with Columbia Christian meeting Kennedy in a 1:30 p.m. quarterfinal. The Knights' semifinal game would be at 1:30 p.m. Saturday against league rival Knappa or Oakland. The championship game is 3:15 p.m. Saturday.

Though he is still 2 1/2 years away from college, Gregg already has received scholarship offers from such programs as Oregon State, Washington State, California, Texas, Portland State, Portland and Eastern Washington. Representatives from other schools are sending out feelers every week.

"It's crazy," says Matt Gregg, in his 11th season as Warner Pacific's head women's coach. "It was fun at first. Now it's kind of overwhelming. You just don't know which way to go.

"The craziest part is all the AAU teams that reach out to you. Those guys recruit better than some colleges."

Ben Gregg will play for the same team he was with last summer, the Rose City Rebels, coached by Grant coach Robert Key.

"We have some of the best kids in Oregon and Washington," Ben Gregg says. "School ball is important, but AAU has taken over the recruiting side of things. That's where the (college) coaches come and watch you play."

Gregg was born in Spokane and lived there until he was 5, when his father took the Warner Pacific job and moved the family to Clackamas. Ben has two olders brothers — Jordan, who played for Eastern Oregon, and Patrick, who plays at Warner Pacific.

"They beat me up pretty good," Gregg says with a grin. "Being around them helped me develop my game. It was an advantage to have my dad be a coach, too. I was always in the gym."

Says Valentine: "He's been trailing along with his dad since he could walk."

Gregg has the size of a post but the game of a perimeter player. He is shooting 69 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range this season.

"My dad felt being a guard at my size would be a real advantage for me," he says. "We've always worked on my outside game and ballhandling."

"Ben's game is so advanced for his age and for his size," says Valentine, who is 557-280 in his career as a head coach and 82-6 in his three seasons at Columbia Christian. "He has point guard skills, shoots the 3, finishes well with either hand, is a tremendous passer and ballhandler.

"And his basketball IQ is so high. Some kids just have that gift, an ability to be a play ahead of everybody else. That's Ben."

Valentine uses Gregg in a variety of positions offensively, but makes sure he spends some time down low at both ends of the court.

"Probably his best asset is his ability to rebound," Valentine says. "He can go get the ball like no player I've ever had."

"I'm a perimeter guy," Gregg says, "but if there's a mismatch, I can take my man down into a post-up. I get to the basket when I can."

Valentine was athletic director at Warner Pacific and had hired Matt Gregg as his women's basketball coach in 2008. That was the major reason the elder Gregg enrolled his son at Columbia Christian.

"I knew Bart was a good guy," the senior Gregg says. "Clackamas is our home school, but the head coach there had quit, and nobody knew about the new guy.

"Benjamin is a quiet kid. It's been a great thing for him to develop some leadership skills under Bart. He was going to have the basketball skill at any level he'd be, but being vocal is what I needed him to work on."

"They wanted him to go to a Christian school," Valentine says. "In some ways, it's been a sacrifice, not putting him with the brightest lights, but Ben has made the most of that. I really respect their decision."

There have been rumblings that Gregg will transfer to Clackamas next season, though Ben says he intends to be back at Columbia Christian.

"That's the plan right now," he says.

"Everything is a possibility," says his father, who adds that Ben hasn't missed out by playing at a small school.

"I don't think so," the senior Gregg says. "He has developed good friends there. He doesn't need a big circle of friends. As far as competition, it was great for them to play in the Les Schwab. Some of the league games are no fun, where they win by 40 and he plays only two quarters. We'll see what the future holds for him next year."

Ben says he has a "great relationship" with Valentine.

"He is able to push me every day in practice," Gregg says. "He has been around the game for a long time, so he knows what he's talking about. He has helped me a lot."

Gregg says one of his goals is to win four straight state championships at Columbia Christian.

"That would be a huge accomplishment for us," he says. "Not a lot of people do that in their high school career. That's my main goal for high school. But we have to win the second one first, and it won't be easy."

Gregg is part of a strong sophomore class at Columbia Christian that also features 6-11 Moritz Hartwich — younger brother of former University of Portland center Philipp Hartwich — and 6-3 Elijah Munyon.

"Never had a Division I player all my time coaching high school," Valentine says, "and I could have three in one year."

Another member of the class is Valentine's grandson, 5-10 guard Derek, who is the Knights' sixth man.

As a freshman, Gregg told one media outlet Gonzaga was his "dream school." The Bulldogs have been in contact but have not offered a scholarship.

"They've said it's going to happen," Matt Gregg says, "but that they want to make sure the relationship is right."

"My family's from the Spokane area, and I grew up watching them," Ben says. "That would be a fun place to go. We're going up there next week to watch them play BYU. But talking to other schools has opened my mind a little more."

Ben says he is "very interested" in Oregon State and feels a connection to coach Wayne Tinkle, also a Spokane native who has known Matt Gregg for years.

The interest from colleges, Ben says, "is very exciting for me. It's been a dream of mine to play Division I basketball. To have schools want me to play for them is a very big deal."

Gregg is a 3.6 student who those around him say has remained modest despite all of his accomplishments.

"When he tries to not be humble, he gets it from the entire family," jokes his father.

"Ben is of the highest character possible," Valentine says. "He puts his teammates first. Sometimes I have to push him a little to take his own shot. He's polite and treats everybody with respect. Just a great kid."

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