Ben's Babbles: Hawks trip to the top has followed a long, winding road

March 10, 2012

Things were not always so glamorous for the Horizon Christian basketball team, currently basking in the glow of its first state title.

A little over a decade ago, things weren't anything at all.

After playing for several years in the 1990s, the team actually went away for a couple of seasons due to graduations and transfers.

The school only had around 40 students at the time, and the team played with whoever it had available in whatever gym space was available.

"We practiced at the carpeted gym at what is now the Hood River Vineyard Church, and played our games at Hood River Middle School, so we didn't actually have a place of our own," said Shay Belcher, who played from 1996-98. "My junior year we were one game away from going to districts and showed the league that we we were there to play ball. Unfortunately we lost too many seniors that year and could not make a team the next year which put the program back a few years."

Jim Nelson coached the team during its transition from the Koinonia League - a group of small Christian schools not affiliated with the OSAA - to the Big Sky League.

Nelson calls the team he coached in the last year in the Koinonia league one of the best he ever saw, with Nathan Stenberg and Phil Brown leading a squad Nelson said "could have competed against any OSAA school."

The next year the school joined the OSAA at the 1A level in the Big Sky League, and the long journey to the top began.

"With a young team it was a harder transition," Nelson said. "We played our games at Hood River Middle School and practiced in a carpeted gym. With no heat at times in the gym it sometimes got a little difficult controlling the basketball with gloves on.

"The league was tough. Both Dufur and Wasco County were football powers and that athleticism spread to the court."

In 1998, the team lost seven of the 13 players in the entire program to graduation or transfer. The remaining few decided to put away their sneakers in favor of snow boots and start a snowboarding team the next winter.

For two years Horizon was hoops-less.

In 2000 Ron Haynes, who had assisted Nelson in the earlier incarnation, got the team going again.

At the first practice, three kids showed up to Westside School.

Three homeschoolers eventually joined the team, giving him at least enough to put a team on the court - although that was rarely the same court twice in a row.

"A few times we forgot to call Westside to see if we could use the gym," recalls Haynes, who is now the coach at Rogue River High School. "So we practiced outside under their shelter in the cold."

While the school was technically Summit Christian at that point, they had no Summit uniforms, so they wore the same uniforms their Baptist Christian Bears predecessors wore a few years prior.

At one point in the season, the team was down to five players, and playing on back-to-back-to-back nights. With several players in foul trouble in the last game of the sequence, Haynes had his team play zone defense almost the entire game.

Haynes estimates the Hawks played in six or seven gyms as the home team in Hood River County that year.

After two years of playing a JV schedule, the team returned to the JV ranks and the Big Sky conference. Things did not go so well at the start.

"We had a rotation of just five or six guys," said Jim Winters, who played from 2000-03. "We used to just get beat up by Dufur and Sherman County."

The team won two games that year.

"The only team we could beat was Central Christian," said Haynes. "They were basically in the same boat as we were."

The next year they won four.

Then things began to change. The team actually started to become halfway decent.

"During my freshman and sophomore years, we had a tough time. We had a small bench which didn't help because of player fatigue. We only won two games my freshman year and four my sophomore year, so it took a lot of work on the part of the players and our coaches to push us harder," said Jeff Larson.

"From my junior year on, coaches Haynes, Heinz, and Mansur added elements to our practices that really helped us improve our basketball IQ and physical fitness," he said. "We added a few more players that fit into the rotation immediately and some who fit in after a year or two which certainly helped. We first made it to the Big Sky districts during my junior year, but we lost in the first round. We lost the first round my senior year as well."

By that time Jeffrey's younger brother Josh was on the team, as was a sharp-shooting young guard named Bobby Cofrances, forward Adam Ohlson and point guard Jake Johnson.

Led by senior post Cameron Root the team charged through the Big Sky District Tournament the next year and won the league title.

"The transformation was incredible," Josh Larson said. My first two years we made it to the first round at the district tournament and got smoked, which showed us how we had to play if we wanted to be successful."

The Hawks earned the rights to a first-round state playoff game against Columbia Christian, but had a problem.

They still had no home gym.

They played the game at Hood River Valley and the gym was rocking. The Hawks came up just short in a loss, but the ground was laid for the future.

The next year ground was broken on a new school campus, complete with the Hawks' very own home gym.

"Before that it was like 'what color are we wearing? Are we wearing white? We must be the home team," Haynes said.

The Hawks made it to Baker City for the first time that next year, with Haynes departing after the final game.

The success of the team drove interest in the school, increased enrollment and expanded the base of basketball players coming into the program. Transfers blend with players coming up from the Junior Hawk program in the grade school and middle school levels.

The team no longer has to worry about running out of players, or where it is going to be playing on any given night.

And everyone who played a role in it is proud.

Winters tuned into the championship game on the radio as he drove back from his National Guard weekend in The Dalles.

Jeffrey Larson followed the championship run from Scotland.

Josh Larson sneaked out of his office to listen to the fourth quarter on the radio.

"My favorite memories from playing are just the camaraderie the players all had," Josh Larson said. "Players from every era support each other and want the new players to succeed. It sounds cliché but Horizon Christian basketball really is a brotherhood."

After his team finished its second season back in the Big Sky with four wins, Haynes couldn't help making a hopeful crack about his team doubling its win total.

"I joked that if we kept this pace up in four or five years we would win a state title," he said.

He didn't get it quite right, but close enough.

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