Defending NWAC champion WWCC lost top players after last season’s title run, but coach Jeff Reinland reloads for another run.
There’s little doubt in Jeff Reinland’s mind that he faces a monumental task in restocking his Walla Walla Community College men’s basketball team’s offensive arsenal.
Gabe Porter, Caulin Bakalarski and Daulton Thompson combined to score 59 points a game last season during the Warriors’ unlikely run to the Northwest Athletic Conference championship. That’s 59 points that has matriculated to Montana State Northern.
Porter and Bakalarski are on the Lights’ 2017-18 roster and Thompson has reportedly transferred to the NAIA school in Havre, Mont., after originally enrolling at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Porter averaged 22 points a game during his final year at WWCC. Bakalarski was close behind with a 20-point average and Thompson, a 6-foot-5 forward, scored at a 17-point clip.
“In Gabe and Caulin we had two go-to guys,” Reinland said of his backcourt duo. “And Gabe was the first one. He hit so many big shots. And he was a good role model who did all the things you need to do to be a player who wants to go on to the next level.
“Caulin was an everything-type player. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter but he was a good one, and he could really score going to the basket. He was one of the most old-school players I have coached in awhile.”
There was a lot of old-school in Thompson’s game as well, the coach said.
“Over the course of his two years here I’m sure he set a record for minutes played,” Reinland said. “He averaged 38 minutes a game as a freshman and 35 last year.
“He played the three for us as a freshman and was a little slow for the position. So we moved him to the four and he was pretty quick for that spot. And with his size and his ability to shoot the 3, he really stretched the floor.”
But it’s yet another sophomore starter on last year’s championship team that Reinland just might miss the most. Beau Tilleman, a 6-8 center who is now playing basketball at Corban University in Salem, Ore., averaged eight points and eight rebounds a game during his sophomore year at WWCC.
“In a lot of ways, Beau was the MVP of our team,” Reinland said of Tilleman. “He was kind of the glue guy.
“He knew everything I wanted as a coach. He did things right, hustled and new our plays from every position, and he was the best ball-screener I have ever coached. We are missing that a little bit this year and it sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Three other members of last year’s 24-8 team that defeated Tacoma 93-75 in the NWAC championship game in Everett have also departed. They are Zach Nerdin, a 6-4 sophomore wing who was one of the first players off the bench; Jesse Howells, a sophomore shooting guard who saw minimal minutes; and Noah Porter, a freshman guard who battled injuries much of the season and has decided not to return.
Landon Radliff is the lone returning starter from last year’s team and is the player around whom Reinland is building this year’s team. The 6-1 point guard averaged 12 points and six assists as a freshman, and he was named the NWAC Championships’ Most Valuable Player last March.
“He was a very solid point guard, but we are changing his role somewhat this year,” Reinland said of Radliff. “We’re asking him to do a little more offensively, and right now we are struggling with it a little bit.
“He was a distributor last year and we’re trying to get him to shooting more. It hasn’t been an easy transition for him.”
The only other returners are 6-2 wing Brandon Porter, 6-2 guard Trace Tiller, 6-2 wing Rob Seme and 6-10 post Gary Engstrom.
“Porter is a good athlete and a strong kid who can shoot,” Reinland said. “He shows flashes at times and then he doesn’t. The ability is there but he has to understand how hard he has to play.
“Tiller is a good defender who saw some minutes last year and we’re working on his perimeter shooting. Seme didn’t play much as a freshman and the challenge for him is trying to get ahead of some of these other guys.”
Engstrom could play a pivotal role this season, Reinland suggested.
“He’s right there fighting for a starting spot at the five,” the coach said. “He’s an athletic kid but he has to get used to the physicality of playing post at the college level.”
Reinland has brought in a pair of transfers from four-year schools who will be counted on to provide immediate help.
Damen Thacker is a 6-0 guard out of Mountain View High in Meridian, Idaho, who originally attended Southern Virginia University. Thacker injured his knee, sat out a year and has the inside track as the Warriors’ starting point guard.
“He’s kind of a combo guard who is very athletic and gets to the hole really easy,” Reinland said of Thacker. “He’s a good shooter, but not a great shooter.”
Kendall Watson is a 6-4 forward out of Hanford High in West Richland who played one season at Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston and has one year of eligibility remaining at WWCC. Reinland has him penciled in as his starter at the four position.
“He’s a big kid, well built who loves the weight room,” Reinland said of Watson. “He’s kind of an old-school athletic player and we’re trying to teach him to be confident in his play and do the things he is capable of doing. We are expecting good things from him.”
Of the seven freshmen who round out the roster, 6-3 guard Forest Smith is a redshirt who practiced with the team last year.
“He is a good shooter who has gotten stronger,” Reinland said of Smith. “We need him to shoot it well for us.”
The other freshmen are Jared Anderson, a 6-5 forward from Pullman; Tyas Kitchen, a 6-5 forward out of Vallivue High in Caldwell, Idaho; Wyatt Hardin, a 6-7 post from Kendrick, Idaho; Brandon Ramos, a 5-10 guard out of Capital High in Boise; Jake Albright, a 6-6 post from Clarkston; and Marcus McKone, 6-3 guard from Desert Hills High in St. George, Utah.
Of those six, Albright and McKone have shown the most promise so far.
“Jake’s been fighting it out with Gary (Engstrom) for the starting five spot,” Reinland said of Albright. “Gary is bigger but Jake is stronger and has a really good understanding of the game. He is used to the banging and doing a good job, and he will get better and better.
“Marcus is probably our best shooter overall,” Reinland said of McKone. “He’s coming off a knee injury and sat out a year, but he has a lot of potential.
“Defense is going to be his challenge, but he’s starting to figure things out. He will get in there because he can shoot. Right now he’s battling for a starting job with Porter, and it is pretty close.”
After capturing his first NWAC championship in his 24th season as the Warriors’ head coach, Reinland accepts the fact that his team will have a target on its back this season. It won’t change the way he approaches the season, he said.
“I’m really happy that we won it,” he said. “I’m happy for our program and our kids and our school, and I am happy for me, too. And I am sure I will appreciate it more when I step out of coaching, but right now I don’t think that much about it.
“I know teams will want to beat us because we are the defending champs and that is fine. But this isn’t the team that won the NWAC. It’s the same school but not the team.
“My expectations are the same. I want to win every game I coach, but my only goal is to be as good as we can be. I know we will run into a buzz-saw here and there because we are a young team and there is a lot of parity out there in men’s basketball.”
Spokane appears to be the team to beat in the East Region, Reinland said. North Idaho and Treasure Valley are two other likely contenders for the title.
“But we have some talent and some kids who can play, too,” he said. “It’s just a matter of piecing things together. We will coach them as hard as we can and they will be the ones who have to do it.”