Longtime Philomath High boys basketball coach Blake Ecker took an out-of-the-ordinary approach to the preseason when practices got underway a few weeks ago.
A strong believer in the havoc that can be created on defense, Ecker focused mostly on offense.
“We’re putting in some new things, new wrinkles this year that yesterday (Nov. 25) in practice, I was very encouraged,” Ecker said. “It was the first day we really went full court and it was exciting to watch. They executed things and got their reads very well done and I was impressed.”
With that type of scouting report on his team in the early days of practice, good results might await in the future.
“With this offense, it’s supposed to get better, better and better as you read and understand each other, so I’m excited for that,” Ecker said.
The Warriors return four starters from last season’s team — seven players had significant starts in 2018-19 — in Michael Lundy, Toby Stueve, Ben Reams and Dylan Bennett. Among those, Lundy, who is now a junior, earned honorable mention on the all-conference team.
“We’re looking for good things from him,” Ecker said about Lundy, who averaged 11 points per game last season. “He’s got a year under his belt, he’s understanding the offense, understanding some reads. He’s a little more levelheaded this year, a little more maturity to him.”
Stueve has been a fixture on the varsity since his sophomore season. He’s back for one final go-round as a senior.
“Gosh, he’s one of your favorite guys to watch on the floor,” Ecker said. “He’s a blast to watch because he’ll go down and get a steal, work his tail off the whole game. Those are the kinds of guys you root for all the time.”
Reams, a senior, played much of last season at less than 100 percent but is off to a good start in practice at point guard.
“Last year, he battled the injury bug and just didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself at the time,” Ecker said. “He has a great comprehension of the offense that we’re doing; he’s a very smart, very cerebral player.”
Bennett worked his way into the starting lineup and now returns for his senior campaign.
“He’s another energy guy — flyer on the court, jumps well, runs up and down the court,” Ecker said. “He needs to be able to use his speed and energy for success. I wouldn’t say he’s a dynamic scorer, but he can make things happen by making some good shots and blocking shots, defending and rebounding.”
Senior Dylan Edwards and freshman Ty May are among the top newcomers that could impact the varsity this season. Edwards is a hard worker that moved up through the ranks to get a shot at starting.
“He’s always worked hard, always been a nice, humble young man,” Ecker said. “His sophomore year, we actually put him on JVII but seeing the potential that he has. I don’t think he liked it, but he stuck with it, played JV last year and had a pretty good season and now, gosh, I see him in a starting role right now as a senior.”
May, who stands 6-foot-6, could be a swing player between JV and varsity.
“He’s all healed and full speed again,” said Ecker, a reference to an injury from football season. “I’m not going to say he won’t play JV — it depends on how he progresses.”
Philomath does come into the season overall with limited depth. The roster has a strong youth movement going with only six seniors and two juniors.
“I wouldn’t say we’re overly deep, but we do have some good talent out there,” Ecker said. “We’ve got a team that can really run this year. Depth-wise, I’m not sure how deep we’ll go, that’s still to be decided during the course of the season.”
Although the coaching staff focused on offense early in preseason drills, that doesn’t mean defense was entirely ignored.
“We always want to play defense, whether we run our 1-3-1 as much from one year to another is debatable or whether we run a 2-3 zone or man-to-man,” said Ecker while explaining that the overall philosophical approach remains intact. “Honestly, we haven’t done a lot of defensive stuff (as of early last week). ... I think over the next couple of days, we’ll get after it defensively. We have our base in and we’ll just keep working at that.”
Philomath had been scheduled to open the season Wednesday against defending 4A champion Banks but that matchup was pushed back to Dec. 16 — likely because the Braves just played in the state championship football game this past weekend. The opener, instead, will not arrive until Saturday with a home game against Junction City.
Philomath plans to host a tournament this season for the first time in years. The Warriors will host a four-school tournament in late December that also includes Crescent Valley, Gladstone and Willamette.
The Warriors will also compete again this season in the South Coast Les Schwab Tournament at Marshfield.
The Oregon West Conference portion of the schedule tips off after the holiday break with a trip Jan. 10 to Stayton. Ecker said Cascade looks like they could be pretty good with several returning players and mentioned Woodburn as a team that could challenge.
“We can win some games, but we can lose some games, too,” Ecker said when asked about the OWC. “It’s just a matter of staying focused and disciplined and staying patient with the basketball.”