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Pioneers rule in 8th grade hoops

This year's Oregon City eighth graders have gone undefeated against teams in their age division for the past three seasons

OREGON CITY - With the loss of four starters - including standouts Brad Tinsley and Sammy Schafer - to graduation, it's highly unlikely that Oregon City High School's varsity boys basketball team will experience the success it had this season in 2008-09.

But don't be surprised if the Pioneers return to the Class 6A state high school final in the not too distant future.

Joining the returnees from the Oregon City team that made the 2008 6A final next season or the year after will be several skilled players up from a group of eighth graders who have been dominant throughout their young careers.

'They haven't lost a game to school teams in their age division since they were sixth graders,' said Oregon City Tri-Star eighth grade coach Ron Coughlin. 'As sixth graders they played on grade level and went undefeated. As seventh graders they played in an eighth grade league but played seventh grade teams on weekends and went undefeated.'

This year the team went 18-0 in the Three Rivers League and 40-6 overall, their only losses to AAU all-star teams. They finished the season with a 24-game win string, defeating Tualatin 55-37 in the league championship tournament, held March 8-9.

Tualatin had earlier given the Pioneers their toughest game in league, yielding 64-55.

The young Pioneers out-scored league opponents by an average of 75-48, and they outscored their opponents by an average score of 69-50 on the 2007-08 season.

League opponents included teams from Clackamas, Milwaukie, West Linn, Lake Oswego, Lakeridge, Tualatin, Tigard, Canby, Lincoln, Sherwood and Molalla.

Among the club teams the young Pioneers defeated was the Friends of Hoop, a top AAU team based out of Seattle.

'Our philosophy was our defense is our best offense,' said Coughlin. 'We'd press and run the whole time, except in games where they didn't allow it, and we played man-to-man defense the whole season….

'This was the best passing team I've had [in 22 years of coaching]. They were all great passers and they were always looking for the open man.'

The team had good size, with five players standing 6-0 or better.

Mike Ralston, one of three seventh graders on the 10-player roster, is 6-1 and was one of the team's top ball handlers.

'We called him the point-forward,' said Coughlin. 'He'd grab a [defensive] rebound and lead the fast break. He's a phenomenal ball handler and a pinpoint passer. At times, when the situation dictated, he'd bring the ball up the floor.'

Coughlin said that Ralston has been invited to try out for an all-star traveling team that features the top 50 seventh graders in the nation.

Andy Rondema, a 6-2 eighth grader, was the Pioneers' 'best all-around player,' according to Coughlin. Rondema was the Pioneers' leading scorer (18 ppg) and rebounder (10 rpg).

Arnold Nguyen, a 6-1 eighth grader, was the Pioneers' 'enforcer,' dominating the physical play close to the basket.

A.J. Mayo, a 6-0 eighth grader, was a threat both on the outside and close to the basket, Coughlin said.

Austin Smith, a 6-2 eighth grader, excelled on defense.

Rounding out the roster were Xavier Coleman (5-5 point guard), Christian Jones (5-10 wing), Joey Baldwin (5-5 shooting guard), Jarom Youngblood (5-6 guard) and Valentino Polk (5-0 guard).

Baldwin had one game where he hit six 3-pointers.

Coleman and Polk were two of the team's top ball handlers, despite being only seventh graders.

Not surprisingly, the players on the team excelled in the classroom, as well as on the hardcourt.

'Most of them are straight A students,' said Coughlin. 'We stress throughout our program that school work has got to come first. In fact, it's our club policy that you can't participate if you get a D or a F in any class.'

The team GPA for the last grading period was 3.8.