Led by seniors Austin Morey and Austin Waibel, Gaston makes a run at the Northwest League title

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Gaston senior Austin Waibel (22) looks on while teammate Austin Morey (21) goes up for a shot during a basketball game earlier this season.For the Gaston boys basketball team, having one Austin out on the court would be good.

But having two is even better.

Led by the hard-charging senior duo of Austin Waibel and Austin Morey, the Greyhounds began the season strong and have just kept getting better this winter. Thanks to a 12-1 start in conference play entering this week, the squad has stamped itself as the frontrunner for the Northwest League championship and as a possible state tournament contender.

As two of the team’s three captains and as the two leading scorers, Morey and Waibel have had a great deal to do with Gaston’s success. Heading into Tuesday’s game against Nestucca, the Hounds were 15-5 overall and riding a nine-game win streak. With the final three league contests on tap this week, just a single win guarantees at least a share of the Northwest title. At least two victories and the crown is Gaston’s alone.

“I hope we go out with a bang,” Waibel said by phone late last week, on a snowy, school day-canceled Friday. “We’ve done really good this year. We’re having a really good winning streak at the moment, and we don’t want to let that go down.”

Waibel, perhaps, has been particularly impressive for the Hounds — a standout player on a standout team that sat at No. 6 in the OSAA Class 2A power rankings heading into Tuesday’s round of games.

The rugged 6-foot-3 post, an all-league second teamer last year, has been an absolute load for opponents to deal with all winter long. He entered this week averaging 17.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 0.65 blocks per game. Impressively, he has produced single-game highs of 30 points and 13 rebounds, and he has scored fewer than 10 points in just two outings this season.

“Not only is he big and strong — he’s fast, too,” Morey said of Waibel, his teammate since the two boys were in junior high. “You don’t expect that from him sometimes. He gets that ball down low and he turns the shoulder so quick, you’re just like, ‘Whoa, that came out so fast.’

“He’s extremely strong, too. It’s amazing. When I try to guard him in practice, I just can’t handle it, because he’s just too strong for me, which is frustrating. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

With 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, the 5-foot-11 Morey may not possess statistics quite as gaudy as those of Waibel, but he plays an equally important role as Gaston’s ball-distributing floor general at point guard. He has also shown that he can score in bunches — hitting double figures nine times so far this year — an important ability given that some teams have taken to double- and triple-teaming Waibel in efforts to slow him down.

“He really runs the show,” Gaston coach Marc Roche said about Morey. “Him and I have a really good understanding of what we want, what we want to do with the offense. They both really know their role really well.”

Even better, not only are the two main contributors to the offense, but Roche also describes Waibel and Morey as two of the team’s best defenders, ones who “really get it done on both sides of the floor.”

That has been important for a team that wins frequently but not necessarily by a lot. Twenty games in, Gaston was 10-3 in contests decided by 10 points or fewer. The Hounds have tended to prevail by outperforming their opponents in the fourth quarter.

“As a coach, it puts a lot of stress on my life,” admitted Roche, albeit lightheartedly. “I think I’ve aged about five to 10 years this season just by all the close games.”

As reliable, experienced mainstays, Waibel and Morey have played stabilizing roles on a team that is undeniably talented but did have some question marks entering this season. A year ago, the Greyhounds placed second in the league before winning the conference playoffs and the Northwest’s No. 1 state playoff seed. Hosting Oakridge in the first round, Gaston fell heartbreakingly short of making the state tournament in Pendleton, losing 34-33.

But the Hounds graduated all-leaguers Sam Wismer and Levi Watkins off that squad and also welcomed some new talent in the form of fellow captain Saheat Berisha, who transferred from Aloha.

“With some of the losses we had last year, (Morey and Waibel) just really stepped up their game and are even better this year for us,” said Roche, in just his second season as head coach.

Perhaps that is because if the Austins have one thing they can fall back on, it is experience. Both have played on the varsity team since their freshman year, with Gaston making the state playoffs each time — an impressive accomplishment for a program with a fairly scant postseason history. And the success has not come only in basketball. Both boys also played on the school’s recent league champion football teams.

They are still hoping their high school sports careers have yet to hit their zeniths, though. After all, there is much still left to play for. Next week, the Northwest League stages its three-team conference playoffs, with the winner guaranteed a first-round state playoff game at home.

Assuming the Hounds make it through to the state playoff field once again, they will get the chance to do what they could not do a season ago — make the state tournament. That first-round loss still stings for Waibel — to the degree that a newspaper article about the Oakridge game is tacked to his bedroom wall.

“We couldn’t make anything to save our lives,” Waibel recalled. “We crashed under the pressure. We were just nervous and didn’t play to our full potential. We let them hang in there, and, truly, we should have won but we let them get in a couple extra shots, and they came out with a victory.”

So Pendleton beckons for Morey and Waibel. If they do lead their team to a tournament bid, it will be of historic note. Gaston does have a state tournament history, but it is pretty minimal — and distant.

The Hounds last advanced to the Class 2A state tournament in 1980 — well before the Austins were born — and they have never won a game at the final site.

So while much is still to be decided, this year’s group has a history-making opportunity in its grasp.

“You just realize that you only have so many opportunities to play high school basketball, that they’re limited and that you need to take the most out of every single game and play hard every single game,” Morey said. “So therefore, you don’t have any letdowns and no regrets.”

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