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Challengers have eyes on capturing state title

No. 4 seed Cascade Christian opens 3A state tourney today against Umatilla

During their last two trips to the Class 3A state championship game, the Cascade Christian boys basketball team has seen its offense go cold in the closing minutes.

Challengers head coach Brian Morse thinks this year could be very different.

And for one very big reason.

“I feel way more confident with a 6-foot-11 guy in the key and Cody Reece getting him the ball or penetrating that we can finish those games and come out on top,” said Morse.

That “6-foot-11 guy” is sophomore center Austin Maurer, who has made quite the impact for the Challengers in his two years. The newly-minted Far West League player of the year has been the driving force behind Cascade Christian’s latest trip to the Oregon coast for the 3A state tournament, as the No. 4-seeded Challengers open play at 3:15 p.m. this afternoon against 12th-seeded Umatilla at North Bend High School.

“I expect big things out of him,” said Morse of Maurer, who scored 21 points and had 18 rebounds in Cascade’s opening-round win over Portland Adventist Academy last Thursday night. “I like to put pressure on him because every time I’ve put big pressure on him and he’s played in a big game, he’s responded.”

Not that expecting big things from Maurer is anything new.

It’s been the case for two seasons now, with very few teams finding solutions on how to slow the big man down.

Maurer, who didn’t play in last season’s culminating week tournament due to injury, enters today’s quarterfinal averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game, and he’s got a lengthy list of big-time scoring games against some of the best teams in the state, including ones the Challengers (20-5) could see this weekend.

“Against Westside Christian, the No. 1 team in the state, he had 34 and 23 rebounds,” recalled Morse of the Jan. 17 meeting. “Against Dayton, we won in overtime and had 36 and 18 rebounds. He rises to the occasion, so I’m expecting that.”

Maurer and Reece, the Challengers’ senior point guard, have been the unquestioned leaders during Cascade Christian’s run to the state tournament.

And Morse knows that trend will only have to continue if his team wants to potentially capture the 3A state title.

Reece, a first-team all-FWL pick, enters the state tournament averaging 14 points, four assists and three steals per game.

“He has been in the last two state championship games and come up short, so he is driven,” said Morse of Reece. “He keeps telling the team, ‘Hey, we are going to do it this year, we are going to work hard to get back there and I’m going to finish my career with a state championship.’ He has a lot of confidence and it spreads to the rest of the team. We feel confident and we just have to go take care of business.”

To get the chance to potentially face No. 1-seeded Westside Christian for a second time this season in Friday’s first semifinal, Cascade Christian must first get through Umatilla (16-9), which got to the state tournament with a 71-61 upset win over fifth-seeded Santiam Christian.

Umatilla, which has won four of its last five, finished in second place behind Eastern Oregon League champion Vale, which faces third-seeded Dayton in today’s third quarterfinal matchup.

“We were expecting to have a repeat matchup with Santiam, which we won by seven the first time (on Dec. 22), but Umatilla pulled off the upset,” said Morse. “We’ve scouted Umatilla pretty hard. They don’t have anybody over 6-1 or 6-2, but they work super hard, they’re really aggressive on rebounds, they’ve got good hands, they play good defense and they’re just a really scrappy and good team.

“Our big thing going into (today’s) game is going to be toughness. We just have to make sure that we are tough and rise to that level. We need to make sure that they don’t rip the ball away from us and that we are the aggressor.”

And if the Challengers do get the top-seeded Eagles in the semis, Morse knows that it will be quite the tough task.

“They have, like, eight studs who are really, really good players,” said Morse. “I’ve got two studs, but they have eight of them and there’s no real letdown. The thing I’m worried about it is that I can’t expect Austin to go for 30 and 6 every time we play a good team, so the other guys have to pick it up.”

The Challengers were ahead late against Westside Christian at the MLK Showcase in Harrisburg before mistakes down the final stretch proved costly in a 59-54 setback.

“It helps a lot (seeing them already),” said Morse. “The guys are confident that if we meet (Westside Christian) again, then we can beat them. It’s not like we played them and lost by 35 points. It was a one-possession game with 20 seconds. We had a one-point lead and then some things happened that wasn’t great, but we were 1-for-15 from the 3-point line outside of Austin. We respect them as the best team in the state, but we also have confidence that we can beat them.”

While confident, the Challengers have also been told plenty of times by their veteran head coach just how tough the next three days are going to be if they want to go ahead and win it all.

Cascade Christian built its nonconference schedule to help itself come this time of year.

Now the Challengers hope to get over that one final hump that has been missing the last couple of years.

“You have to be strong and you have to be aggressive,” said Morse. “You have to be the aggressor and you have to make sure that you don’t let that physical play get into your head mentally.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Cascade Christian's Cody Reece, seen here in a file photo from earlier this season, is averaging 14 points per game entering the 3A state tournament.