By Jeremy McDonald
MILL CITY, Ore.– The longevity of success at any level, any classification is tough. Especially the lower classifications like at 2A where Santiam is at.
The past five years, the Santiam Boys’ basketball team have been on a tear. One State Championship Title, placing sixth and fourth the past two years respectively and have reached the 2A playoffs the past four years with an 88-31 record.
It spoke to the buy-in that Wolverine Head Coach JD Hill has instilled in the program that had set up the success. When he arrived on campus from East Linn Christian in 2013, Santiam was young.
Of the 3-22 team that year, a freshman, three sophomores and a Junior had no Varsity experience. Mix in the adversity of seeing some of their best athletes not coming out or going to other schools created some adversity for the first-year coach in his freshman year in the Canyon.
“It was definitely a challenge for us that year,” Hill said of his first year. “Each year we got better and that mixed with some of those athletes coming back to Santiam made a huge difference. The Canyon has a lot of great athletes; it was just a matter of showing them and their families I could be trusted and we could build something special at Santiam.
“I think it’s important to emphasize it wasn’t anything I did to turn us into Champions. I’ve been fortunate to walk into a lot of talent that was developed long before I ever came to Santiam. That championship group of players were a special group and a lot of that can be owed to coaches that came before me.”
He pointed to Jamey Fawcett and Spike Aerni that had been coaching the kids in the area since they were in elementary school down the street from the High School.
“They were the ones that laid the foundation for the program going from where it was to winning a State Championship,” Hill said of the duo.
Hill coached with his dad and his two good friends in Kyle Cowan and Jonathan Whitehead while at East Linn Christian Academy, something Hill said he will always remember and hold close to him. Hill learned a lot about coaching from the trio that has helped him as Santiam slowly crept into the league playoffs and built something special the next two years after his first year in the Canyon.
What started with him coming to Mill City as an educator, as a teacher, Hill jumped on the opportunity to coach the boy’s basketball team as they embarked on their Championship season during the 2016-2017 school year.
“What has struck me about the community since Day 1 is their toughness and grittiness. Part of your job as a coach is to motivate your players to play with effort and toughness, but to this point that has been one of the easier parts of coaching since I’ve moved to Santiam,” Hill said. “I think other coaches in our league would tell you that it’s a battle when you play Santiam regardless of how much talent we showed that night.
“That has made the adjustment easy along with the fact that I just genuinely love it here. I love the kids, I love the community, and it’s a beautiful place to live. I thank the Lord that He guided me here and let me join in the success that has happened here.”
The Tri-River Conference has always been tough. The consistent play from Western Christian and Kennedy. Regis and Central Linn back in the day as well before they joined the Central Valley Conference in 2018. Sheridan now since the Spartans dropped to 2A from 3A in 2018. Living up to the saying that ‘Iron sharpens Iron’.
“Every time we play any of these schools it’s a playoff game, because we know that they are some of the best teams in the whole state and at the end of the day, how we do against them will determine our playoff fate. It’s stressful and it’s fun at the same time,” Hill said of the league. “Going back 30 years this league has probably been one of the most consistently competitive leagues in all levels and in all sports in Oregon. If there is a Conference of Champions in Oregon I really think it is the Tri-River.”
And being in the Murderer’s Row of conferences paid off during the 2016-2017.
They stole one from the powerhouse Western Christian, then known as Western Mennonite, during the regular season. Edging them once more in the 2A State Semifinals 53-33 before rallying in the fourth quarter against Stanfield from seven down in their 57-54 State Championship win.
“Western has had our number recently, but they have had some exceptional teams the last several years. Their Championship team in 2019 might have been one of the best 2A teams of all time right behind a Knappa of the late (19)90’s early 2000’s,” Hill starts. “So, for our guys to get to battle them over those last four years it’s been a challenge and has surely made us a better team. Kennedy is probably our truest rival and it has been interesting the back-and-forth nature of our games over the last seven years. Lately neither team can win on our home court, which is kind of bizarre, but it’s always fun battling with those guys.”
Kennedy and Santiam met for the fourth-, sixth-place game in 2019 with the Trojans defeating the Wolverines as the two squads met four times that season.
“In my 15 years of coaching that is definitely one of the most enjoyable seasons I have ever been a part of,” Hill said of the 2018/19 season.
This past season was just a continuation of their sixth-place finish but, a new challenge met them in their journey back to Pendleton for 2020:
The Injury bug.
Hill had mentioned that 70-percent of their success comes from talent, developed in the offseason. The next 25-percent, is a combination of how hard and how selfless you play for the team. The final five-percent may come from coaching.
That 25-percent was evident with the 2020 Wolverine squad when you watched a Santiam game this past year. Colin Thurston and Kobe Dyer were coming in banged up from football. Little injuries to other players occurred, but it didn’t slow down Santiam one bit as they jumped out to a 11-2 start before tapering to a 24-8 overall record. Overcoming the adversity day-in and day-out to achieve their goals and dreams.
“This last season was supposed to be a continuation of that (previous season) and in a lot of ways it was, but we just dealt with so much adversity that it was very challenging mentally,” said Hill. “The guys were really banged up, but they just kept battling and, in the end, the fourth-place trophy was very rewarding. I can’t emphasize enough how tough that group was last year and how they played through more than people realized.
“The kids up here have a lot of grit and they’ve been willing to make the necessary sacrifices for the team. If you mix that with the talent, we’ve had then you’re always going to be successful.”
Hill, in seven years, is 112-84 at Santiam. Three 20-win seasons, three Top 6 finishes with the State Title and four straight postseason trips. All coming in the past four years after laying the foundation the three years prior to this run.
Longevity in sports is tough. Success is tougher. Evolution is key and adapting your ability to adjust on the fly is just as important as a late Free Throw to force overtime.
For Hill, he realized how important it has been for him to adapt from more than the X’s and O’s and to adapt to the talent he had around him. Floating away from a ‘set-system’ mold one around what talent he has around him to turn the Wolverines into a consistent 2A Playoff team.
“I have definitely had to learn that coaching is a lot less about X’s and O’s than I originally thought. I realized I needed to be willing to adapt to the talents we had rather than force a system on them just because it was my system or it had worked in the past. I have also learned to embrace the grittiness of the kids at Santiam and use it to our advantage,” Hill starts.
“Coaching is one of the things that gives me purpose, so the challenge to be a better coach is always there for me. I’m always thinking about what I can learn from my past mistakes and the type of coach that the current group of guys need me to be.
“I’ve learned that every year not only are the talents of the guys different, but the personalities and temperaments are totally different as well. At the end of the day, I’m an educator and these are the guys I have to work with and it’s my job to meet them where they are and help them get to where they want to go. It really isn’t about me and it’s a lot more fun to see them have a good experience than it is to win a certain number of games.”
Faces have come and went for Hill through these last few years. Familiar last names like the Fawcett’s, the Aerni’s and the Whitmire’s played for Hill at one time or another.
Just as athletes may have a memory or be thankful for the opportunity to play for a program or a community, Hill is the same way about the Canyon. Grateful for the opportunity he has to work with some great people for nearly a decade from players to coaches that keeps Hill wanting to come back every year to continue to make some more great memories at Santiam High School.
“Like I said before I am so thankful that the Lord guided me here. Some of the best memories and friendship of my life have happened over the last seven or eight years here in the Canyon,” Hill said. “I’ve had the privilege to work with some great young men and alongside some great coaches. It keeps me excited for the next year because I just want to keep making more great memories every year.
“With every group I hope they get to experience Pendleton and how much fun that trip can be. I think this next group can do that if they commit to some of the things I mentioned earlier, but most of all I just hope they get the opportunity to play and enjoy basketball together this year. Our community has been through so much in the last year and I think it would mean a lot to all of us if we were able to play.”
Photos By Jeremy McDonald