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Happy homecoming: Crater's Bittle signs with Oregon

CENTRAL POINT — Nate Bittle stuffed his 7-foot frame into a car and drove 5 1/2 hours Friday, returning to his hometown in Southern Oregon to fulfill a longstanding dream.

On Saturday, it was all worth it — for Bittle and those on hand for an invitation-only ceremony at Crater High School that saw the nation’s No. 8 men’s basketball recruit in the Class of 2021 officially sign his letter of intent to play next season for the University of Oregon.

“It was really important,” Bittle said of returning to Central Point for his signing, “because this is where I grew up, this is where I was made and this is where I became the player I am today. This is a place I love. I’m always going to be coming back here, no matter what happens.”

Nine days earlier, Bittle could be found providing a game-winning tip-in at the buzzer for Prolific Prep in an elite basketball tournament in Phoenix, Arizona.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns for his ability to play basketball as expected here in Oregon, the Bittle family made the difficult decision to transfer the star recruit to the college-preparatory basketball academy in Napa, California, for his senior season in August.

Bittle gave his verbal commitment to Oregon in September, but when it came down to it, he wanted to share his official signing with those who have encouraged him so closely here along the way.

“Having everyone’s support in Southern Oregon is so crazy,” said Bittle, who was set to return to California today. “I appreciate everything everyone’s done for me, it means a lot.”

Bittle was the Class 5A state player of the year at Crater for the 2019-20 season — interrupted with the Comets in the state semifinals due to coronavirus precautions — after averaging 25.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals. The all-state standout was a force in all three seasons he played at Crater, and the school didn’t want to see him not be appreciated for that.

“This is a pretty special day for Nate and regardless of where he’s playing basketball now, it’s a special day for Crater High School,” said Crater athletic director David Heard in addressing the maximum 50 people allowed, per state regulations, at the ceremony. “Nate will always be a Comet in my mind.”

Heard said Bittle is currently taking online classes at Crater and will graduate with his class in 2021.

That sentiment echoed throughout the gym Saturday, with Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach noting how special it was to see Bittle return home for his signing.

“He didn’t have to do this, to come back to Crater and sign at his school,” said Schmerbach. “That’s pretty cool and says a lot about Nate and his family, and what he means to Crater and to our program and what he means to our community. To be able to come back and sign here at midcourt, it’s just amazing and means a lot to the people who are here today in this room.”

“It’s definitely a championship moment, I would say, for me,” the coach added in addressing Saturday’s gathering. “We didn’t get to play for the state title, but this is as close as it comes to it. For me this is a championship.”

Flanked by parents Ryan and Susanne, sister Kendra and brother Kyle, Bittle found Saturday’s moment somewhat surreal.

“It’s pretty crazy realizing in eighth grade I wanted to play college basketball,” he said. “Oregon was always a dream school and just making that accomplishment in life and being able to go there and play for the coach I want to play for, the program and a great school is just an awesome experience.”

Bittle is the highest-rated boys basketball player to come out of Southern Oregon since South Medford High’s Kyle Singler chose Duke as the No. 4 recruit in the nation for the Class of 2007.

He becomes the highest-rated in-state commitment for Oregon basketball in program history, well ahead of West Linn’s Payton Pritchard (No. 54 for 247Sports in 2016), and is the fifth five-star commit for the Ducks and head coach Dana Altman since 2017.

Bittle said he established a solid relationship early with Altman and members of his coaching staff, and believes Oregon’s style of play for someone with his skills as a 3-point shooter, shot-blocker and passer are a perfect match.

“Nate’s size is obviously a factor and what most people are going to look at first,” said Schmerbach, “but his feel for the game, his basketball IQ, his shooting touch and then just his ability to shine in big moments are all characteristics of players you just don’t see a lot of. He kind of has the full package. When it comes to when you get him on the court and the lights are on, he’s at his best.”

When he reached Prolific Prep, Bittle measured out as 6-11 without shoes (7-foot in them) and discovered his wingspan had actually increased to 7-5 1/2. He has added good muscle weight to put him at 200 pounds and been thrust into a higher level of play than before with a loaded Prolific Prep roster that has allowed it to be ranked Wednesday as the No. 5 team in the nation in the MaxPreps Top 25.

“It’s a different atmosphere than being able to play here,” said Bittle. “There’s kids that are top ranked recruits that we go against every day in practice and every game. Just having those good players around you makes you just that much better.”

Bittle’s current teammates include Stanford-bound 6-2 point guard Isa Silva and, among others, Class of 2022 standouts Kamari Lands (6-8), Adem Bona (6-10), Mouhamed Gueye (7-0) and Jordan Pope (6-2).

“It’s definitely different,” said Bittle of playing for a national powerhouse like Prolific Prep. “There’s a lot of good players and you just have to find your shot at the right moments. Everyone knows that and everyone knows that every person on the team can score so you’ve just got to do the best job you can sharing the ball and scoring.”

In his highlight effort to date, Bittle did that in terms of sharing the basketball as well as scoring. He finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against host PHH Prep of Phoenix, Arizona, in a bubble tournament, providing an emphatic conclusion to a 65-63 victory with his game-winning putback off a 3-point shot by Pope.

“The play was designed for me to pop up, slide and shoot the 3,” said Bittle of plans drawn up by head coach Mark Phelps, “but then I had a guy close out on me and I saw Jordan was wide-open so I passed it to him. Then I was like I have to crash because, if he misses, this is to win the game. Then everything just ended up happening and I got a tip-in and we won, so it was pretty cool.”

Saturday, mind you, provided a more personal exhilaration for those on hand.

“Playing men’s Division I basketball, that’s really, really, really hard to do,” said Schmerbach, “and you have to be a special player to have that opportunity.”

“One of the first meetings I ever had with Nate was when he was an eighth grader,” added the coach. “He sat down and we set some goals and one of his goals — I still have the piece of paper — was to be an NCAA basketball player. To be able to work with him and see him work hard and his family work hard to achieve this goal is honestly one of the highlights of my coaching career. It’s just pretty cool to see. He’s such a tremendous talent and great friend.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Crater High School basketball standout Nathan Bittle talks with media after signing Saturday to play at the University of Oregon. Photo by Denise Baratta
Nathan Bittle poses for photographs during a signing ceremony to play basketball with the University of Oregon Saturday in Central Point. Photo by Denise Baratta