Boys basketball preview: Evergreen keeps eyes on bigger prize

Sting of loss in state playoffs lingers for Plainsmen

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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photoCaleb Dressler (34) is a 6-foot-10 senior who has signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for the University of Hawaii next season.

(/The Columbian)

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The final lesson learned by the 2010-11 Evergreen Plainsmen boys basketball team was a harsh one:

Season overview

For glance at teams in area boys basketball leagues, click here.

When shots don’t fall, even a determined team can fall.

On Feb. 25 in Richland, the Plainsmen shot 28 percent and lost to Ferris of Spokane in the first round of the Class 4A state tournament. Not that it felt much like a state tournament game, with only the final eight teams now making it to the true tournament in the Tacoma Dome.

“It was heartbreaking. I don’t want to experience that feeling ever again,” forward Tre Clark said.

The pain of that memory masked this cheery fact: last season was the best for Plainsmen basketball in more than a decade.

Once a consistent force in these parts, Evergreen re-emerged last winter. Led by seven seniors and the consistent play of 4A Greater St. Helens League 2011 player of the year Caleb Dressler, the Plainsmen won a league title for the first time since 2000.

They claimed the district trophy for only the second time in that span, and were a state participant for only the second time in 11 seasons.

With the 6-foot-10 Dressler and 6-5 Clark back for their senior seasons, and with 6-5 senior post Austin Gurnsey healthy after missing most of his junior season, the Plainsmen expect to contend for a second-consecutive league title — and hopefully much more.

Ranked No. 7 in Class 4A by the Seattle Times, Evergreen has its eye on the ultimate prize.

Such ambitious goals were routine at the school during the 1990s, when the Plainsmen won six league and district titles over a seven-year span. A 1995 state title and 1996 third-place finish highlighted the run.

Kelly Blankenship, now in his fifth season as the Evergreen head coach, watched those John Triplett-coached teams as a fan from a seat near the bench. He said he pushes his teams to emulate the intensity and effort that made those squads successful.

“We really talk about that a lot,” Blankenship said. “People really worked hard to make that program successful.”

Blankenship said he and assistant coach Derek Christina remind the players often that playing basketball at Evergreen is a privilege and a responsibility.

Don’t expect these Plainsmen to take anything for granted. Heck, Evergreen isn’t even favored to win its own league if you believe the Seattle Times rankings.

Union is rated fifth among Class 4A schools.

And unranked Battle Ground, which led the league most of last season, also returns a strong squad.

The sting of coming close to reaching the Tacoma Dome last season should help keep these Plainsmen on task in 2011-12.

“It broke us down,” Dressler said about the impact from the playoff loss to Ferris. “At the same time it motivated us to work that much harder.”

Clark said February’s unexpected playoff loss led to a pact among this year’s Evergreen seniors to do everything and anything to reach Tacoma and a real shot at a state title. If that happens, the 6-foot-10 Dressler will be a big reason. The senior signed a letter of intent to play for Hawaii.

“We’ve been (to the playoffs) and we know what it takes,” Dressler said, listing a consistent work ethic as the foundation of such success.

The Evergreen veterans understand that it will take physical and mental toughness to repeat as league champions. They also know from the “atta-boys” in the hallways and the students in the stands that boys basketball is creating excitement at a school that hasn’t enjoyed a lot of sports success in recent years.

“Spirits have risen around school,” Gurnsey said. “We can give the school something to get excited about.”

Dressler said fellow students look up to the basketball players “not just because we’re tall.”

The 6-5 Guernsey and 6-5 Clark are key pieces. In part, their size makes it difficult for opponents to swarm Dressler. All three are strong rebounders, and Clark can create offense.

Equally valuable will be their leadership on a team that will need younger perimeter players such as sophomores Jalen Ballard and Jahmil Johnson to step up to the challenge of varsity basketball.

The guards’ ability to defend full court and keep ball-handling mistakes to a minimum will help define this season for Evergreen. The Plainsmen also must replace the scoring supplied last season by shooters Warren Edmondson and Stefan Foulstone.

“The young guards are going to make mistakes. Everybody does,” Gurnsey said. The key, he said, is to make sure those mistakes don’t impact the young players’ confidence.

Supporting the younger players is about more than trying to win this season, Clark said.

“If we help the guards, we’re not just helping right now, but helping the future of the program.” Clark said.