The Pioneers have talent and they are hopeful that they can hold their own in arguably the toughest Class 6A boys basketball league in the state

by: JOHN DENNY - With a chip on their shoulders, the unheralded Oregon City Pioneers aim to prove themselves among the best in the Three Rivers League this winter. Pictured are returning players (from left) Ryan Markuson, Austin DeWitz, Brad Martin, Hunter Knighton and Trevon Bradford.The Oregon City Pioneers are hungry, after going 1-9 in the highly competitive Three Rivers League last year, a league in which two teams — West Linn and Lake Oswego — finished in the top three at the 2013 Class 6A State High School Boys Basketball Tournament.

The TRL this year will once again feature two or three of the state’s top teams. But the Pioneers are hopeful that a year’s experience under coach Aaron Newkirk, along with a lot of hard work in the offseason, will lead to much more success for Oregon City in 2013-14.

“West Linn won the state title last year and they’ll be the favorite [to win the TRL again this year], by far,” said Newkirk. “Clackamas has most of its people back, and they’ve got size, so they’ll be good too. I’m hoping we’ll be in the mix with everyone else....

“We’re cautiously optimistic [about our chances]. We have experience we didn’t have last year. Last year we were third in the state in [least] points allowed, we just had a hard time scoring.

“The program has made progress. The kids have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do and we anticipate that we’ll score more points this year.”

“I know West Linn and Clackamas are good and we’re in a tough league, but I feel we have a good chance to do really well,” said Oregon City sophomore Trevon Bradford. “I feel like we could win [the league] if we want to. Nobody expected us to do it in football. In basketball, I think we are just as talented as West Linn and Clackamas.”

A two-way starter, Bradford was a first-team all-league defensive back in football, as the Pioneers finished on top of a league that advanced three teams to the state quarterfinals.

“Since the day after last season ended, we’ve all been lifting weights and hitting the gym three-hours-plus a day,” said Oregon City senior Ryan Markuson. “Hopefully all of the hard work pays off and we end up on top.”

“I’m really excited,” said Pioneer senior Brad Martin. “I think we’ve got a shot at doing really good,”

The Pioneers return five of their top seven players from last year and Markuson (6-6 post), Martin (6-6 post) and Bradford (5-11 wing) are three of them, along with juniors Austin DeWitz (6-5 wing) and Hunter Knighton (6-2 wing).

Knighton (8.5 ppg) was the Pioneers’ second-leading scorer last season and he garnered league all-star recognition for his efforts. Martin (5.5 rpg) was the team’s leading rebounder.

Rounding out this year’s varsity roster are: senior Nick Kloepper (6-4 post); juniors Chris Mengis (6-2 wing), Josh Gibson (6-2 wing) and Mason Martin (5-11 guard); sophomores Briggs Young (5-9 point guard) and Tyler Sheldon (5-11 guard); and freshman Tanner Smith (6-0 wing).

“We only have three seniors on the team and we’ll start two sophomores,” said Newkirk. “I’m sure we’ll be the youngest team in the Three Rivers League.”

“We’ve got a young team, but I don’t think it will matter,” said Knighton. “I think that we’ve definitely got the talent [to win league].... We’ve progressed a lot from last year. We shoot the ball better and we’re less selfish....”

Gibson sat out last year after suffering a knee injury just before the Pioneers’ first game. He’ll likely remain off the court until January of this year, while he continues his rehabilitation from the injury, according to Newkirk.

“We’re hoping to have Josh cleared for contact in another month,” said Newkirk. “He’s a really skilled offensive player and he’ll help out a lot.”

Young was the leading scorer on last year’s jayvee team.

“Tyler Sheldon was the best player on our freshmen team last year and they had a really good year,” said Newkirk. “I think they were something like 18-5.”

“I think we’re in the toughest league in the state,” said DeWitz. “But we have a lot of talent and we’re hungry to show what we can do.... We’ve got a lot of guys with experience from last year, plus some new young talent that’s going to help out a lot. Guys like Tyler Sheldon. He out-hustles everyone. He’s a role player now, but we’re going to see a lot from him in the future. Tanner Smith. He’s only a freshman, but he’s a brute. He’s very skilled. He doesn’t play like a freshman. And Briggs Young. He was jayvee last year. He’s in the starting rotation and he can flat-out shoot the ball.”

“Our biggest challenge will be communicating,” said Knighton. “We have a lot of quiet kids, and when we stop talking things can go wrong and snowball. We’ve got to communicate better.”

“We had the third best defense in the state last year,” said Martin. “We have to bring it on defense like last year, shoot the ball well and when the shots aren’t dropping, drive to the basket.”

“One of the biggest keys [to being successful this season] will be to not be intimidated and come out timid against teams like West Linn and Clackamas,” said DeWitz. “We’re just as good as they are and I know we can play with those teams.”

“I like that we’re in a tough league, because when you compete against the best, it’s going to make you better,” said Bradford. “And it will help prepare us for the playoffs.”

The Pioneers will get an idea of where they stand in preseason, because Newkirk says that they have a very tough preseason schedule, compared to their schedule a year ago.

They were impressive in last Friday’s season opener, a 79-68 win over Tualatin, a top 16 team from last season.

“All of the kids played really well,” said Newkirk. “We broke their press and got a lot of easy baskets, and we defended against their 3-point shooters real well. They played McKay in their first game and made something like twenty 3’s.”

Newkirk said that the Timberwolves made only five of 29 3-point attempts in their game with Oregon City.

Young demonstrated that his adjustment to varsity level play was not that big a leap for him, as he scored a team-high 20 points in the win over the Timberwolves.

Knighton (16 points, 10 rebounds), DeWitz (14 points, 8 rebounds), Bradford (13 points, 5 assists, 4 steals) and Mengis (12 points) also scored in double figures.

The Pioneers were a hot-handed 30-of-50 (.600) from the field and they made 13-of-17 free throws.

Oregon City hosts Tigard this Friday. The Pioneers play Sunset on the road next Tuesday. They also have preseason games with Westview, Centennial, Marist, Newberg, Pendleton and Hood River.

“Tigard is a top five team,” Newkirk said.

Sunset lost to Southridge 60-58 in the fourth-place final of last year’s Class 6A State Tournament.

League play begins on Jan. 17, when the Pioneers have an away game with Lakeridge.

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