Jeff Reinland believes he might have overused the word overachieve in describing his Walla Walla men’s basketball team’s success this season.
But there’s no denying that the Warriors, who made it all the way to the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships title game in Everett last weekend before losing to defending champion North Idaho, did not begin the campaign with high expectations.
For a couple of reasons, actually.
“I knew we had a couple of good pieces coming back with Damen (Thacker) and Jake (Albright),” the veteran WWCC coach said. “But other than that we had pretty much a bunch of players who hadn’t played that much college basketball and we were going to be relying on freshmen.
“And then we got a little bit of a late start recruiting.”
Warriors assistant coach Travis Noble was handling a sizeable share of the recruiting duties, Reinland said. But when Noble accepted the boys head basketball coaching position at Timberline High in Boise, the job fell squarely back on the head coach’s shoulders.
“Travis was talking to a lot of the recruits,” Reinland said. “And it ended up I had to take it back over probably around the end of March or the first of April.
“We weren’t super far behind, but Travis and I were recruiting different kids. Travis was recruiting some pretty high-level players and we ended up losing a bunch of them when they went to four-year schools.
“So we were a little bit behind the 8-ball.”
Despite all of that, Walla Walla got off on the right foot by winning its first four games.
The Warriors were 5-2 after losing two of their three games in the Bellevue tournament. And then they lost Albright, their 6-foot-5 starting post, to a knee injury in practice prior to their own crossover tournament in mid-December.
Albright missed the next six games and the Warriors went 1-5 during his absence. He returned in time for WWCC’s East Region opener Jan. 2 in Spokane, and the Walla Wallans lost that game as well.
“There were a lot of question marks going into the season, and there was a point in the season where we were 6-8,” Reinland said. “At that point we were thinking, let’s take this one game at a time and just try to win a few games.
“I had no idea we would run the table after that against everybody we played except North Idaho.”
But that’s exactly what happened.
The Warriors returned home Jan. 5 and defeated Yakima 100-89 for their first region victory. And they finished the season, including the postseason tourney, on a 16-3 tear, losing only to the powerful Cardinals who dominated the NWAC from start to finish.
Reinland got what he expected from Thacker and Albright during the Warriors’ 22-11 season.
Thacker, the team’s 6-1 point guard, averaged 22.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He shot 43.8 percent from the field overall and 35.3 percent from 3-point distance.
Albright scored 16.7 points a game and led the team with 10.5 rebounds. His 58.3 field-goal shooting percentage was also tops on the team.
“We got a great year out of Damen and a very good year out of Jake,” Reinland said. “Jake was obviously the biggest key because when we didn’t have him we went 1-6.
“I was worried we might not get him back when he went down. It didn’t look very good and I felt the pain in my knee, but it ended up just being a strain.”
A third sophomore, 6-5 forward Jared Anderson, didn’t put up big statistical numbers, averaging 3.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. But he found other ways to make contributions.
“Jared’s going to be hard to replace because he was our glue guy,” Reinland said of Anderson. “He did all the things that nobody else likes to do, like defend the other team’s best guy and rebound and hustle. He was very valuable.”
But the two players who perhaps elevated the Warriors from mediocrity to a second-place finish both in the East and it the NWAC tourney were guards Forrest Smith and David Howard.
Smith, a 6-4 sophomore, finished the year with a 15.1 scoring average, snagged 4.5 rebounds a game and 2.2 assists. He also shot at a 50.4 clip from the field and 40.2 percent from outside the arc.
Howard, a 6-0 freshman, wound up with a 12.2 scoring average and shot 42.7 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from downtown.
“Forrest was the most pleasant surprise of the year,” Reinland said of Smith. “He really improved as a player. I was surprised he was able to break into the starting lineup and it wasn’t even close.
“He had a great year and I am really proud of what he was able to do as a third-year player.”
Howard, who is from Las Vegas, didn’t throw in with the Warriors until over the summer. And he didn’t break into the starting lineup until the last week in December when he averaged 30 points a game in a three-day tournament at Clackamas CC in Oregon City, Ore.
“I thought we got a great year out of David as a freshman,” the coach said. “He hit a lot of big shots for us and he had some hot games.
“We didn’t sign him until June and thank the Lord we got him. He shot it well, but he’s more than a shooter. He’s crafty and tricky and I knew he was going to be a good player, but I didn’t know he would jump into the starting lineup.”
Reinland is confident Howard will return for his sophomore season. And he’s hopeful that the other freshmen on this year’s team will as well.
Guard Keeshawn Clark along with forward/post players Leonel Gallegos, Jackson Clark, Jake Costello, Dillon Young and Kyler Villarreal are eligible to return. Freshman Wyatt Hardin will not return for his second season of eligibility because he has already earned his AA degree and is headed to a four-year school and eventually medical school, Reinland said.
Two players who redshirted this season — Teegan Cox of Prosser and Brandon Howes of Elgin, Ore. — are also expected to make their Warrior debuts next season.
And the recruiting process is already well along, Reinland said, although he’s not at liberty to reveal the names of his new recruits until the April 1 signing date.
“I think we need players at every position,” the coach said. “We need a couple of posts, a couple of wings and at least one point guard. I’ve got a couple of verbal commitments, and we are close on a few guys who can really shoot the ball.
“This was not one of my better-shooting basketball teams. But we are going to shoot the ball very well next year.”