I’m so convinced that any team with a desire to make it all the way to the state tournament must have put in some extra time on the basketball court. Like the boys in this story, it doesn’t matter where any of the players came from, the important thing was how they blended well when it came to fearless competing.
In Keizer, Oregon, five seniors coached by Larry Gahr led the way for the 2001 McNary High School Celtics. Wow, has it really been that long? Here it is already 2016 and I remember it just like yesterday. I’m proud to say that one of those players in the photo is my son, Jake.
Number 12 Brian Zielinski, 10 Chad Harms, 32 Ryan Medford, 52 Jake Espinoza, and 44 Clark Ellison, were the seniors leading the way to a successful season. Two other seniors that were major contributors were Jamie Reznick and Tony Alefanti. Juniors were Trevor Cross, Ryan Schmidt, Drew Miller, and Grayson Boucher.
How did this all happen? Well, let’s take a look at four of the players. Chad, Brian, Ryan, and Jamie were playing together since the grade school days. They all had supportive parents that would go miles out of the way for their child. They played in an organized basketball league called the Skyball League and they represented Whiteaker Middle School. In addition, they played for a tournament team that traveled to different cities. I remember seeing the nice uniforms and sweatpants the players wore.
Jake played for Adam Stephens Middle School which participated in the same Skyball League. None of the kids at Stephens played on a tournament team. When Jake’s team played against Whiteaker in the seventh grade, well, the first half was close, but the second half was not a pretty sight. Whiteaker went on to win by 20 points. Ryan Medford at the time was probably 6’ 0”. Jake was maybe 5’ 7” and the best ball handler at Stephens. Brian Zielinski was a factor stealing the ball several times from some of the inexperienced Stephen’s players.
Jake tried out for the Keizer Celts eighth-grade tournament team the following year. This was the only local tournament team that we knew of at the time. I wanted my son to play in tournaments, not just the Skyball league. Jake made the team and started playing with Chad, Brian, Ryan, and Jamie. They started to get to know each other throughout the years. There were some uncomfortable moments at times due to Jake breaking in as a new member. But as time passed adjustments were made and things got better.
Clark Ellison didn’t come into the picture until his freshman year in high school. He was a transfer from Chicago and did not play basketball at McNary his freshman year. Clark was an athletic kid that could play ball, but he needed to learn the McNary offense-defense program. He joined the team his sophomore year where he played JV with Jake, Chad, Jamie, Drew, and Grayson. Brian and Ryan were moved up to play varsity as sophomores.
To be honest, I knew this team would be tough contenders just from watching them for years. Most of these players were leaders in their own way. There was plenty of drama, not just in the players, but in the parents as well. The officials had their hands full when the parents were at these games. I’m including myself as well – I’m not too proud of some of the comments I made to officials when they missed a call.
This group of guys all came together through Larry Gahr’s basketball program by their senior year. Just how, I’m still not sure. Every senior on this team was different – unique in their own way. They all had different hobbies, they all were raised different, and they all had different study habits. But the one thing these boys had in common was the competitive spirit and the drive to win.
To this day, I feel for Coach Gahr and his staff. I commend the coaches for making it through challenging years – keeping those kids together the best they could. I mean, I'm so thankful for the study tables they had to keep the athletes’ grades up. Also, the talks during practice and after practice, were helpful. Another challenge was dealing with the parents – Lord knows that’s always a challenge. I’m sure there were more I didn’t know about.
Back in 2001 our conference was called the Valley League which consisted of 10 teams. Class 4A (Big schools’ league), McNary; Crescent Valley; North Salem; South Salem; Sprague; Lebanon; West Albany; South Albany; McKay; Corvallis. The top four teams made the playoffs and sixteen teams from the state made it to the OSAA State Tournament at Memorial Coliseum. This is where the Blazers played before the Rose Garden and Moda Center came into play.
There were no superstars or go-to players on this team. Everyone contributed. Each player knew their role and executed it precisely. Coach Gahr put in many offensive plays, defensive presses, etc. I used to watch some of the practices – amazing the things these kids learned. They were all very smart and aggressive – that certainly helped.
During high school Jake grew 4 and ¾ inches from his 6’0” freshman year to his senior year – he stood at 6’4 ¾”. Ryan grew four inches standing at 6’4”. Clark grew to 6’3” and could jump like a rabbit. We started hearing the term “Terrorizing Trio” referring to the three big guys we had. These three were strong, fast, and didn’t back down from anyone. They all would rattle the rim in practice.
Chad and Brian were our guards that rarely turned the ball over. They took care of the basketball ball and they ran the offense. The defense was intense from these two little guys. The three-point percentage was great as well.
It was not usually a big deal if any of the five fouled out, because the others would step up – McNary was deep in that sense. This made the case of a winning season in league play. But with one game left in the playoffs before advancing to state, they had to face Beaverton, Oregon – winners of the Metro League. The winner would move on to the State Tournament.
I can still hear the standing-room crowd. I had never seen a high school gym so packed. All you could see was people everywhere. It was an intense game and every shot counted – the pressure was amazing! The intensity from every player was felt. Clutch free throws made by different players in the end helped seal an overtime victory defeating Beaverton 53 – 50 and earning a birth to the OSAA State Tournament. The Celtics were on their way to Portland, Oregon!
The team goal was to play on Saturday. On Wednesday, March 07, 2001 McNary would face Roseburg, Oregon, at 7:00 pm inside Memorial Coliseum. They were facing 6’7” Joe Newton, 6’6” Brennan Gavrelts, and 6’5” Alex Williams – a lot taller than McNary.
The entire year every player on the team had their shining moment – it was like they took turns. But on this stage at the state tournament, it was Jake Espinoza who shined like an all-star. It brought me to tears watching him play his best game of the season. Most of you will never know what he and I went through for years – it wasn’t easy. I love my son to this day and stood by him every day. Jake led all scorers with 19 points and he pulled down 10 rebounds – a double-double. Ryan scored 9 points, Drew Miller scored 8, Chad had 5, Clark had 4, and Brian led all players with 4 assists. McNary defeated Joe Newton and the Roseburg Indians, 57 – 45. They held Joe to only 15 points.
The team goal was met, they played on Saturday. They lost to nationally-ranked Jefferson High School on Friday and rivalry South Salem on a down-to-the-wire game, 58 -61. We were all so proud of these guys for such an amazing season – a record of 20 wins and 7 losses.
Four out of the five seniors went on to play college basketball and contributed significantly to their teams. One went on to play college baseball. Memories like this are never forgotten but treasured.