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Bulldog senior excited to continue career at Division II university in Lacey, Washington

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn High School senior R.J. Veliz signs his letter of commitment to play for the Saints of Saint Martins Univeristy — a Division II school in Washington.The 2018-19 winter basketball season may be more two months in the rearview mirror, but that hasn't done much to change the routine for Woodburn senior R.J. Veliz.

The Bulldogs' All-State guard has kept himself busy throughout the spring, taking morning workout trips to Portland before classes, followed by after-school sessions at The Hoop in Salem, along with strength training and plenty of school work as he finishes up his high school education.

"It's been quite a grind; I'm trying to finish out the year strong," Veliz said. "It's just been basketball."

After all, there's plenty of more roundball to go for Veliz, who signed his commitment on May 10 to advance his athletic career to the collegiate level at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington.

Located just outside the state capitol of Olympia, Saint Martin's is a Catholic liberal arts school with a Division II athletics program that is the smallest member of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, along with such universities as Western Oregon and Concordia in Oregon.

"It felt like home when I visited; it felt like a place where I could really thrive in the classroom," Veliz said. "The religious aspect is pretty cool to me. The academics are really good, and the basketball team is fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance in the national tournament."

Veliz joins a Saints program that is in a state of transition after its most successful season in program history. The Saints graduate eight players who helped propel the team to a 26-6 record, the program's first GNAC regular season championship and the first Sweet 16 berth in the Division II tournament.

The Saints also saw the departure of four-year head coach Alex Pribble, who became the assistant coach at D1 Seattle University on May 3. Saint Martin's named Aaron Landon as the new men's basketball coach on May 20, giving the Saints a fresh look heading into Veliz's freshman season with the team.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people," Veliz said. "A lot of people probably aren't going to give us a shot, but we're going to use that as motivation and try to keep trending upwards."

It's the same attitude that motivated Veliz and the Bulldogs to a fifth-place finish in the 2019 4A boys basketball state playoffs in March, the best finish for the program in more than two decades.

PMG FILE PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Following three years at Blanchet Catholic High School, Veliz returned to his home town Woodburn High School, helping to lead the Bulldogs to a fifth-place finish in the 2019 4A state tournament.Though the team's title aspirations were dashed in a late-game loss in the semifinals to the eventual champions from Banks, Veliz is happy with the team's placement this season and hopes it sets the standards for future boys basketball teams at Woodburn High School.

"I have come to peace with it, because I know Woodburn was behind us the whole way," Veliz said. "We really proved the doubters wrong. I've come to peace with our placing. It was something we haven't done in many years, so it was pretty years."

A Woodburn native, Veliz spent the first three years of his high school basketball career at Blanchet Catholic High School in Salem before returning home to play for the Bulldogs his senior year. The prospect of finishing his career in Woodburn, playing with the classmates he grew up with while helping put the basketball program on the map in its transition to the 4A classification was the primary motivation for the move.

"This was kind of a big deal to me," Veliz said. "I'm just trying to change the culture around here a little bit. It's a great culture, and the soccer team does amazing, but I want to add onto that with the basketball team and all the other sports to make Woodburn a powerhouse in the future."

While the six-time state champion boys soccer team routinely sees its players continue their athletic careers collegiately, the rest of the athletic programs have not seen the same success, and it was important to Veliz and Woodburn High School officials to show that the Bulldogs can be more than just a one-sport school.

"This is the first time in my five years here that we've gotten to do this in the gym, so we're setting a new precedent in basketball, and I'm pretty excited about that," Woodburn School District Athletic Director Chad Waples said at Veliz's signing ceremony earlier in the month.

It's a sentiment Veliz's dad and Woodburn boys basketball head coach Raul Veliz shared at the signing, which featured dozens of family members, faculty, friends and classmates eager to see the Woodburn senior move on to the next stage of his career.

"As a dad, I'm proud of you," Raul Veliz said. "That old saying that hard work pays off — it truly does, but you've got to keep going, because it only gets harder from here.

"The next level is that much harder, so you've got to make sure to put in that much more work," he continued. "The city of Woodburn and Woodburn High School is behind you, and we'll always be there to support you."


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