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Warner Pacific men back in the race again

The race is on again in the top-heavy Cascade Collegiate Conference, which has four men’s basketball teams in the national rankings.

The surprise: Defending national champion Oregon Tech isn’t one of the four.

No surprise: Warner Pacific College, the Christian liberal arts school on Southeast 68th Avenue and Division Street, is in contention.

The Knights, bidding for an eighth straight trip to the NAIA Division II tournament, have survived a season-ending injury to their returning point guard. They are 13-4, including 4-1 in the CCC. Warner Pacific was ranked No. 14 in the last (Dec. 11) NAIA D-II poll. Conference rivals Eastern Oregon (No. 2), Southern Oregon (No. 12) and Northwest (No. 21) also were ranked. The next poll comes out Tuesday.

In the CCC, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon are 5-1, and Warner Pacific and Northwest are 4-1 going into their game Friday in Kirkland, Wash.

OIT is off to a 10-8 start and is last in the conference at 1-5 after four close league losses. The Owls have won three national titles in the past nine years and four consecutive conference championships. But they are younger and less potent offensively this season, so the CCC crown almost certainly will go to EOU, SOU, WPC or Northwest.

“I don’t think any of us are great right now, but we all have the potential to step up and rise above the others” in the conference race, says WPC coach Jared Valentine.

The Knights also sometimes find themselves on the lookout for more scoring, as well as playmaking, in the wake of a knee injury to point guard Will Sharp during preseason practice.

Stephen Harris, a 6-5 senior guard from Hillsboro High, has filled those roles for the most part. An all-CCC player last season, Harris is averaging team highs of 16.7 points, 4.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He also leads the conference in rebounds with 11.6.

A 6-1 sophomore, Josh Black, is one of two Australians on the team and is becoming more of a factor in the backcourt. His late free throws and career-high 19 points sealed a 91-88 overtime home win over SOU on Dec. 23.

Another 6-1 soph guard, Ryan Parks, came from Las Vegas prep power Bishop Gorman. He leads the team in 3-point baskets with about three per game (.414). The Knights’ second-leading scorer, with 12.6 points per game, is Doug Thomas, a 6-5 sophomore forward from Aloha High. Coletun Tarr, a 6-5 junior forward out of Milwaukie High, is at 11.2 points per game and has hit .459 from beyond the arc. “We play a lot of 2-3 zone with him at the top,” Valentine says. The Knights’ other Aussie is sophomore Zac Compton, 6-6, 240, who starts at center.

Heading into the NFL playoffs, 16 players with state-of-Oregon ties are on the active rosters of the 12 teams in the field. Several others are on the practice squads.

One thing that stands out is how young most of these local players are — an indication of not only how hard it is to make an NFL roster but how challenging it is to stay there for long. Only former Oregon Ducks defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is beyond his fourth NFL season.

The list consists of 16 ex-Ducks, two former Oregon State Beavers, two ex-Portland State Vikings and two players from Oregon high schools:

AFC

Baltimore — Ed Dickson, third-year tight end from Oregon (No. 84); Haloti Ngata, seventh-year defensive tackle from Oregon (No. 92)

Denver — Julius Thomas, second-year tight end from Portland State (No. 80)

Houston — Eddie Pleasant, rookie tight end from Oregon (No. 35)

New England — Patrick Chung, fourth-year safety from Oregon (No. 25)

NFC

Atlanta — Drew Davis, second-year wide receiver from Oregon (No. 19); Jacquizz Rodgers, second-year running back from Oregon State (No. 32)

Green Bay — Alex Green, second-year running back from Benson High (No. 20)

Minnesota — Geoff Schwartz, third-year offensive lineman from Oregon (No. 76)

Seattle — Brandon Browner, second-year cornerback from Oregon State (No. 39); Paul McQuistan, third-year offensive tackle from Lebanon High (No. 67); DeShawn Shead, rookie defensive back from Portland State (No. 35); Walter Thurmond III, third-year cornerback from Oregon (No. 28); Max Unger, third-year center from Oregon (No. 76)

San Francisco — LaMichael James, rookie running back from Oregon (No. 23); Will Tukuafu, second-year defensive tackle from Oregon (No. 48)

The Ducks and Beavers needed to make a trade this season: Bryan Bennett for Trevor Romaine.

If Oregon had had better kicking, the Ducks might be playing for the national championship.

If Oregon State had had better quarterbacking, the Beavers might have been in the Rose Bowl.

Hate to say it, but for once one of my predictions came true; I forecast an OSU loss to Texas this way:

“Not that the Beavers aren’t good enough to beat the Longhorns. They look like the better all-around team to me. But it will take an above-average day for the Oregon State quarterback, or quarterbacks. And both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz have been inconsistent. Neither has played that well in a challenging game since October.”

The bottom-line stats weren’t pretty for the Beavers:

Texas’ David Ash accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one running), one turnover (interception) and 263 yards (241 pass, 22 run) ... Vaz had no touchdown plays, three turnovers (two picks and the game’s only fumble) and 113 yards (194 pass, minus-81 run, all on 10 sacks).

It’s never all on the quarterback, and you can blame the OSU pass blockers and play calls, as well. The Beavers were clearly better when they weren’t in passing situations, when the Longhorns couldn’t tee off on Vaz with their pass rush.

But Vaz didn’t make plays and didn’t show any mobility. Quarterbacks have to be able to move and escape the rush, especially in college. Even Andrew Luck had that ability, and he’s several inches taller than Vaz and considered the model pocket QB.

It was a rough 24th birthday for OSU offensive tackle Colin Kelly, who probably wasn’t into much celebrating in San Antonio after the 10 sacks of Vaz on Saturday.

He’s probably just keeping the seat warm, but I’m watching P.J. Carlesimo’s interim gig as Brooklyn Nets coach with great interest. Carlesimo, promoted from assistant coach last week when the Nets fired Avery Johnson, deserves another shot as an NBA head man.

Folks, it’s been 15 or so years since he left the Trail Blazers with the label of screaming taskmaster and then got choked by Latrell Sprewell, one of his players at Golden State. I believe Carlesimo has learned a lot in those years. I’ll bet he’s still tough — i.e., demanding — on his players (and on himself), but he’s 63 now.

The NBA is all about entertainment, anyway. And seeing how Carlesimo handles the Nets, who have their issues and personalities (including Deron Williams, another not-easy-to-handle point guard) could make for great theater not far from Broadway.

The timing of Johnson’s firing, by the way, was classic. It came right before New Jersey was to play two of the worst teams in the league, Charlotte and Cleveland. That gave Carlesimo a good chance to get off to a successful start, and the Nets won both games.

Oh, and I loved the report that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and Carlesimo had huddled in a “fancy lunch meeting.” Reportedly, they broke bread at a Greek place in midtown Manhattan. Given not only Prokhorov’s wealth but also Carlesimo’s taste in good restaurants, what, you expected them to dine at Taco Bell?

Happy birthday

Jan. 8, 1957 — Calvin Natt (age 56), averaged 17.2 points in 337 games as a Trail Blazer forward from 1979-84, after being acquired in a trade for Maurice Lucas and two first-round draft picks

Jan. 4, 1975 — Scott Frost (age 38), Oregon Ducks wide receiver coach

Jan. 9, 1978 — Chad Johnson (age 35), former Oregon State and NFL receiver

Jan. 6, 1991 — Will Barton (age 22), Blazers rookie guard

Jan. 9, 1992 — Terrence Jones (age 21), Houston Rockets rookie forward from Jefferson High

Jan. 5, 1993 — De’Anthony Thomas (age 20), Oregon Ducks running back/receiver/returner

Oregon sports history

Jan. 10, 1969 — Two days before what is being called “the third annual Super Bowl,” New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath predicts his 18-point underdogs from the American Football League will upset the NFL Baltimore Colts.

On the same Friday, in Eugene, Lew Alcindor’s 27 points lead UCLA to its 27th consecutive basketball win, 93-64 before a capacity crowd of 10,500 at McArthur Court over Oregon, which gets 18 points from (the Bruins would go on to win the NCAA title, their third straight in a streak that would reach seven).

And in Portland, 3,797 fans at Memorial Coliseum watch Grant beat Jefferson 62-54 and Madison down Cleveland 84-61 in a boys doubleheader (Grant would go on to beat Madison in the state championship game).

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Twitter: @sbrandonsports