Practice was fast-paced and noisy as the Grant Union Prospector boys basketball team worked on drills at their morning practice Nov. 27 with new head coach RC Huerta.
“I want to make this a ‘Mecca’ of basketball,” Huerta said of the Grant Union program.
He said, while he’s mindful of those who’ve gone before and the other great sports programs, he wants to make the school known for basketball too.
“I want them to think of Grant Union as a whole,” he said. “It’s a great place, and I want to give them even more of a reason to come.”
Huerta, who coached freshmen basketball for six years in Redmond, was a Grant Union baseball assistant coach last season.
He has been the John Day-Canyon City Parks and Recreation Department program director, starting in September 2018, and he has 12 years of previous experience with Parks and Rec programs. Locally, he helps the youth coaches, and he referees their games. He also runs basketball, baseball and softball summer youth camps and has plans for other summer activities such as kickball.
The new Prospector coach is growing the program where former head coach Kelsy Wright left off.
“My goal is to win games, build on what they already have,” Huerta said, who has help from assistant coaches Jesse Gosnell and Taylor Schmadeka.
Two key players, Jacob Vaughan and Tanner Elliott, graduated last June, and five seniors have moved up, including small forward Tristan Morris, power forward Mason Gerry and shooting guards Taylor Hunt, Warner Robertson and Nathaniel Hodge.
Rounding out the roster are six juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen.
Returning starters are Morris, Devon Stokes and Jordan Hall.
Huerta said he wants to influence his athletes to make strides on the basketball court and in the classroom.
The team came up with four pillars of the program with standards and consequences the players decided on together.
“I want them to own the program,” Huerta said.
The structure centers on the team-family, school, basketball court and community, with rules such as “build each other up,” “be on time,” “100% school attendance,” “no negative talk or body language,” “don’t talk to officials,” “thank the crowd” and “help those in need.”
“We’ll continue to build each other up,” the coach said. “If we complete these, that’s going to translate into wins.”
He’s also re-starting a tradition of having the boys wear slacks and ties on home game days.
Strengths he’s seeing on the court from his team include quickness and athleticism with a strong defense.
Grant Union’s opponents in the 2A Blue Mountain Conference are the Enterprise Outlaws, Heppner Mustangs, Pilot Rock Rockets, Stanfield Tigers, Union Bobcats and Weston-McEwen TigerScots.
“Union is going to be tough for us,” Huerta said, noting he’s seen some tape on the Bobcats. “I know they’re going to try to throw a lot of things at us.”
Last year, Grant Union fell to Union at the district tournament, the Prospectors placing third.
Morris, who scored 22 points in the game, was named to the Blue Mountain Conference All-League first team. His brother Mason Morris, a sophomore this year, was named Player of the Game for Grant Union in the district battle against Union.
Huerta said Stanfield will be another team to watch.
He said the Tigers are athletic and tough, adding that Stanfield fans tend to pack their stands.
“I love that atmosphere,” Huerta said.
“We want to go out there and do our job,” he said. “I don’t ever underestimate any opponent.”
Grant Union will get their start to the season hosting the 3A Burns Hilanders at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4 (girls varsity at 6 p.m.), in nonconference action.
Huerta expects it will be a competitive game with a neighboring county team considered a nonleague rival.
The coach said he and his staff have the same philosophy when it comes to basketball. He said he wants his players to be thinkers.
“Some react. We want them to anticipate,” he said of his team. “If you’re ready for them, they have to think ahead. We’re going to bring some toughness and shut them down.”
“There will be no crap talk, just do our job and have positive attitudes,” he added.
Gosnell said he loves the game and is excited to help out the program.
“I think we can learn a lot of life skills from basketball — mental toughness, not quitting,” Gosnell said. “They can take that and apply that to their life after high school — that’s a win.”
Huerta said he hopes to have a positive influence on his players.
One athlete on the first freshmen team he coached called Huerta on his birthday, five years later.
“It shows you’re making an impact,” he said.
The five seniors are showing great attitudes, Huerta said.
“Tristan, he’s really bought into being a positive leader, and Mason is being more vocal,” he said. “Nathaniel is a hard worker, Taylor works his tail off all the time and Warner is a work horse.”
Hunt said, with most of their players returning, he’s optimistic about the season.
“I’m pretty excited to see what happens,” he said.
“Our expectations are high,” Robertson said. “We all came here to win, and that’s what we’re going to do. We have a lot of energy and excitement in the entire club.”
Hodge said his personal goal is to work hard, improve and become a better person.
Gerry said he thinks that he and the other seniors will lead the team well.
“We’re loud and talkative and have a lot of will to win,” he said.
Morris said the team’s hard work and having a “great coach” is giving them confidence for the season.
“I’m looking forward to winning league and keeping every team under 40 points,” he said, adding those are team goals. “Everyone is working hard on defense.”
He said their thought for the day for practice was a quote from Vince Lombardi: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”
Huerta said everything the team does on the court is celebrated.
“Every single thing,” he said.
After practice, each player took a half-court shot, then all shouted together and rushed toward the coaches to huddle.
“I never thought I’d be here, but it’s always been a dream,” Huerta said. “Not everything is going to be roses ... I’m ready to get after it.”
Grant Union boys basketball schedule
Dec. 4: vs. Burns, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 6-7: @ Lions Tournament in Elgin, TBA
Dec.12-14: @ Columbia River Clash vs. Umatilla, TBA
Dec. 19: @ Burns, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 20-21: @ Willamina Tournament, TBA
Jan. 3: @ Stanfield, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 4: vs. Enterprise, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 10: @ Heppner, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11: @ Union, 5:30 p.m.
Jan.17: @ Pilot Rock, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 18: vs. Weston-McEwen, 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 24: @ Enterprise, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 31: vs. Union, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1: vs. Heppner, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 7: vs. Pilot Rock, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 8: @ Weston-McEwen in Athena, 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 14: vs. Stanfield, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 21-22: Blue Mountain District Tournament, TBD