By Jeremy McDonald
MILL CITY, Ore.– Santiam put Western Christian on high-alert Friday night.
The Wolverines were on the brink of the improbable: Handing the Pioneers their first in-league loss.
It’s been since January 27, 2017 when the Pioneers were known as Western Mennonite, had lost a Tri-River Conference game when they lost to Regis 59-54.
Since that faithful night the Pios have wheeled off 37 straight Tri-River Conference wins. Tack on five more if you wish to include league playoffs.
Yes Santiam that year beat them in Pendleton en route to the Wolverines State Title, the lone loss technically to a league opponent since that January night, but let’s leave that in the non-league category.
Fast forward to Friday night, Western Christian’s 38th in-league win would be a tough one.
They were facing the Wolverines yet again, both teams match-up well with their lineups, but it was Santiam that surprised Western Christian by leading by 11-points entering the fourth quarter 45-34.
“Western had lost a lot of pretty good Seniors last year and just going over the film, going over the guys we have…going into that fourth quarter, we knew it was going to be a battle,” said the Wolverines Colin Thurston. “But we have all the tools to compete at that level and I think next time it’ll come down to the wire again. You never know, but we have all the tools to be that good team and to win those kind of games.”
The Pioneers knew this was going to be their biggest challenge yet this league season, but they knew they had each others backs
“He looked at each and everyone of us and asked ‘who has heart?’,” said Alex Nicoli. “Me and Payton (Richardson) immediately said ‘we got it’. All five of us said ‘we got it’. What you saw the last six minutes, that’s teamwork right there those last six minutes.”
Nicoli described those last six minutes as Western Christian Basketball.
With five minutes to go, the game was tied at 45. Both teams scrapped and clawed for baskets. The foul trouble on Chaz Storm and Hunter Reeser for Santiam had slowed them a bit, here they were competing down to the wire against the defending State Champions.
“We match up pretty well with those guys. If we could limit a few of those fouls, that might’ve been a key to a win. I just look at it as, even with all the obstacles that has been happening with us this season we’re still in a position in which we could compete in the fourth and in these kind of games,” said Thurston.
Coming down the stretch however, the little miscues in their game cost them on the other end. Ethan Halgren gave the Pios back the lead, Nicoli scored twice, Richardson pushed the lead to 57-52 when it was moments earlier 49-all.
Kobe Dyer pulled Santiam to within two, but Western iced the game for good with Richardson. And, as the two teams will meet again on January 30 in Salem, the respect is there…they need to come out like they finished Friday.
“Their a great team, I hope we see them in Pendleton because they deserve to be there. We just got to play like we did in those last six minutes,” said Nicoli for their second meeting. “As a team, together and play with heart. Coach (Gary) Hull and Coach Martin’s going to write a game-plan for us and we’re just going to go out there and execute.”
Nicoli scored 14 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. Richardson added 27 for the Pioneers. Thurston finished with 17 points and Storm had 22 for the Wolverines.
Photos By Jeremy McDonald