Derek Wiley
The Bulletin

State playoff picture

As the high school basketball regular season comes to a close this week, the state playoff picture is getting clearer.

In Class 6A, the top three teams from each of the seven leagues automatically qualify for the 32-team bracket. Eleven additional teams will qualify as at-large bids based on the OSAA rankings. Rankings freeze at 10 p.m. Friday for the boys and at 10 p.m. Saturday for the girls. Playoffs begin Feb. 26 for the boys and Feb. 27 for the girls.

Mountain Valley Conference

Girls

At 9-3, Bend and West Salem are currently tied for second behind league champion South Salem and hold a two-game lead over fourth-place McNary. With two games remaining, a win at Summit on Tuesday or a McNary loss at Mountain View would send the Lava Bears into the postseason. Summit, ranked No. 35, and Mountain View, No. 36, are unable to finish in the top three and must rely on their OSAA rankings to make the 32-team field.

Boys

While Mountain View is sitting outside of the top three, at No. 24 in the rankings, the Cougars should get into the playoffs as an at-large team. However, No. 31 Bend and No. 35 Summit still have work to do. The Lava Bears and Storm face off at Summit on Tuesday night.

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In 5A, 15 teams automatically qualify for the state tournament, including three from the Intermountain Conference. One additional team will qualify based on rankings. Due to a plethora of postponements because of recent inclement weather, the IMC has canceled the second half of its league season and will stage double-elimination tournaments for both boys and girls starting Thursday to determine its three playoff teams for each gender. The 5A rankings freeze Feb. 26 for boys and Feb. 27 for girls. Playoffs begin March 1 for the boys and March 2 for the girls.

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In 4A, two teams from each of the six leagues automatically qualify for the 16-team playoff bracket. The next eight teams in the rankings will compete in play-in games on or before Saturday. Rankings freeze Tuesday night.

Tri-Valley Conference

Girls

Madras (6-3) finishes the regular season Tuesday at Estacada, holding a one-game lead for second place over 5-4 Molalla and Gladstone. With a win, the White Buffaloes are in.

Oregon West Conference

Boys

Sisters (5-6) must rely on its ranking to get into the postseason. After Monday’s 37-34 overtime win at Philomath, the Outlaws are sitting at No. 13.

In 3A, La Pine’s girls finished second in the Mountain Valley Conference and as the 16-seed in the state playoffs will play at No. 1 Burns on Saturday.

Trinity Lutheran opens the state playoffs Tuesday night at home with the goal of winning the Class 1A boys basketball championship.

Three years ago, after posting a combined 1-43 record in two varsity seasons, such a lofty aim seemed unfathomable.

“Boys sports didn’t really exist,” says Kyle Gilbert, who became the Saints coach before the 2016-17 season. “Girls volleyball had been successful, but the boys side hadn’t really seen success or emphasis.”

Gilbert moved from ­Orange County, California, to Bend in 2015 to teach at Trinity Lutheran, where he also coached the eighth-grade basketball team.

“We wanted a smaller, familylike community to raise our three boys in,” recalls Gilbert, whose wife also landed a teaching position at the school.

“We had been praying about it for 14 years and God opened the door to be part of the Trinity and Bend community. We love it here and feel very blessed by the opportunity.”

Gilbert’s eighth-grade squad was led by Matt Eidler, Cash Niemeyer and Abe Clift, who had played together since they were second-graders through the Bend Park & Recreation District.

After one season coaching middle schoolers, Gilbert was promoted to Trinity Lutheran’s high school coach and the three boys decided to stay as well.

“I wanted to build this team up, build our school up and have a better relationship with God and my friends,” says Niemeyer, who has been a student at Trinity Lutheran since preschool and is now a junior. “That’s why we stayed.”

Gilbert also wanted to continue coaching Niemeyer, Eidler and Clift.

“Working with them their eighth-grade year was a great opportunity,” Gilbert reflects. “I knew our school needed something to help build awareness about it and these three were great people and very talented and I wanted to be part of it for them and the school. I just developed a relationship with them and wanted to be part of their lives and be invested in them, and basketball is just a great avenue to do that.”

Led by Niemeyer, Eidler and Clift — all three starters as freshmen — Trinity Lutheran began the 2016-17 season 5-0, but Niemeyer broke a foot during the fifth game and the Saints lost the next four. They went on to finish 16-9, missing the playoffs.

With a team that included five foreign-exchange students who had never played basketball, Gilbert says Trinity Lutheran just did not have the depth or experience to overcome a key injury.

“There was some very talented teams in the Mountain Valley League that year, very deep, and we were not old enough or mature enough at that point to handle the juniors and seniors,” Gilbert recalls.

The Saints got on a roll last season, winning 11 games in a row before falling to Triad in triple overtime. During the second overtime, Trinity Lutheran lost Niemeyer again, this time with a torn ACL.

In Niemeyer’s absence, the Saints again struggled, losing their next two games, getting blown out by Triad in the league playoffs and then falling to Jordan Valley in the first round of the state tournament.

But Trinity entered this season with some hype. After winning a summer tournament in Sherman County, the Saints were voted No. 1 in the OSAAtoday’s preseason 1A coaches poll.

Easing Niemeyer back into the lineup, Trinity lost two of its first three games before winning 49-47 two weeks before Christmas at Sherman, which finished the season ranked No. 1 in 1A.

“I was pretty much learning how to play the game of basketball all over again and getting my strength and agility back,” Niemeyer says of his return from the knee injury.

The Saints then won 13 of their next 14 games, including a 58-56 victory over Class 4A McLoughlin in the Irrigon Invite on Dec. 28. The only loss during that run came at Triad.

But Trinity got revenge, handing the Timberwolves their first loss of the season, 35-31, on Jan. 26.

“We felt like we had a couple of times where we could have beat them last year so we had to show them that we could play with them and that we’re better than them,” Clift says.

Gilbert’s son, Scooty, a freshman, scored 16 points in the victory over Triad. Eidler, who has averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game this season, posted a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“We want to play in those games,” Eidler says. “We want to play all these teams that are ranked higher than us.”

The Saints lost at home to North Lake to close the regular season, but they rebounded to defeat the Cowboys 48-40 Saturday in a seeding game at neutral La Pine to earn the No. 2 seed in the Mountain Valley League. Trinity finished sixth in the final 1A rankings, which determine playoff seedings beginning in the second round.

Trinity Lutheran plays Jordan Valley, the No. 3 seed from the High Desert League, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the first round of the state playoffs. The Saints are seeking the first playoff victory in school history.

“Obviously if that happens, it’s great,” Kyle Gilbert says. “But we have bigger goals than that.”

­­— Reporter: 541-383-0307, dwiley@bendbulletin.com

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