North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
Rogue Valley Adventist boys basketball coach Mike Glasgow pointed to a sign that had "Baker" written on it every time his players slowed down in the weight room during the offseason.
The thought of traveling to the northeastern Oregon town has motivated the Red Tail Hawks all year long.
Baker High will host the Class 1A state tournament. With a victory over third-seeded Powers (11-9) in the first round of the 1A state playoffs today, second-seeded RVA (22-4) can move one step closer to the eight-squad bracket, where none of the players have been before.
The winner of today's contest will advance to play at top-seeded Crane in the second round on Saturday.
The tournament in Baker begins March 1.
Should the Red Tail Hawks capture two straight victories, they'll end up driving over 1,500 miles to and from Eastern Oregon.
RVA players say they are willing to go the distance to keep their hopes of a championship alive.
"That's a dream I have every night," says 6-foot-3 guard/forward Caleb Allen, a sophomore who leads the team in scoring (20 points per game) and rebounding (10 per game) while shooting 53 percent from the floor.
The Red Tail Hawks' journey to this point has not always been smooth though.
Four RVA players were suspended from the team late last month, including a starter and team captain and another player who logged significant minutes. That left the Red Tail Hawks with just eight players, including three who rarely if ever entered contests.
The team starts junior point guard Jonathon Alvarez, junior shooting guard Micah Neufeld, senior forward Micah Pirelli, senior forward/center Jesse Gilley and Allen.
None of them have ever played in a state playoff game.
"This is all new to these kids," says Glasgow, in his sixth year with the boys. He hasn't coached in a state playoff game since his first year, when the Red Tail Hawks captured the league tournament crown as the No. 3 seed.
Allen remembers the day he found out about the suspensions, which came before his squad hosted Butte Falls on Jan. 31.
"It was bad," Allen recalls. "I walked into the gym and everybody wasn't really talking."
One of the suspended players later asked to talk with Allen alone. The two went upstairs, where he apologized to Allen and asked him to take on a new level of leadership.
"At first I felt like, 'I've got team captain, I'm big and bad,' but now that he is gone, I want to set the example and do what I need to do out on the court," Allen says. "I feel like these are my brothers and I need to make sure I carry them."
Showing resolve, the Red Tail Hawks went 5-1 after the suspensions and clinched the regular-season Mountain Valley League title. In the MVL seeding tournament at Oregon Tech last weekend, RVA fell to Triad 51-42, snapping the Red Tail Hawks' 13-game winning streak.
The adversity that the suspensions caused drew the squad closer, Gilley and Allen agreed.
"We bonded together as a team," Gilley says.
Said Allen: "We trust each other more and love each other. We are a better team."
The original bonding process began during the offseason, when players filed into the weight room at RVA, which used to be a chapel. The Red Tail Hawks worked out to P90X, a top-selling series of fitness DVDs. The "Baker" sign hung on a wall by the video machine.
"That gave them incentive," says Glasgow, who also participated in the workouts. "And some of the kids put some meat on. These kids are physical."
Additionally, RVA played in tournaments in Napa, Calif., and Klamath Falls, and challenged a number of local junior varsity squads during the summer. Glasgow estimates the team played in more than 40 games.
The physical 6-foot-4 Gilley, whom Glasgow calls a force inside, improved his timing and rebounding skills during the offseason using a jumping program. He has averaged 10.2 points per game (on 51 percent shooting) and seven rebounds per game. When he shares the court with Allen — who can post up and spin around his opponent, set a hard screen and roll to the rim or drive with the ball and kick — the Red Tail Hawks can be tough to slow.
Allen's family moved here from Minnesota about 51/2 years ago. His father was a basketball coach at Minnetonka High.
"Caleb is learning the game all the time and always wants to improve," Glasgow says.
Jonathan James, a sophomore forward, and Austin Petray, a junior forward, have both performed well as their roles on the team have expanded to key reserves, Glasgow says. They were called into an intense league game against Triad on Feb. 9 when Alvarez and Gilley fouled out late.
"We were barely hanging onto the lead," Gilley recalls. "I was pulling my hair out. Austin had been nervous and jittery before and, in the hardest game, he wasn't scared at all."
Nick Wood rounds out the squad.
Most nights, "everyone is dead tired" after games, Glasgow says, but nobody's complaining.
"I like playing on the team," Gilley says. "I couldn't think about playing anywhere else."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com