With a talented core back, Lake City boys basketball coach Jim Winger wanted to challenge his team as much as possible this season.
It started with the schedule.
Lake City didn’t play a nonleague game in Idaho. The Timberwolves took trips to Wenatchee, Kalispell, Mont., and Clarkston, not to mention the usual league game in Lewiston.
Winger wanted his team to deal with the adversity of travel and playing in different environments. LC also played Washington 3A state-bound University and Garfield of Seattle, which will be favored in the Washington 4A state tournament this week.
The result is fifth-ranked LC takes a 17-5 record to the 5A state tournament beginning Thursday in Nampa. The Timberwolves open against District III runner-up and second-ranked Rocky Mountain (19-4) of Meridian. Tip off is at 12:15 PST and can be seen on a live stream on Idahosports.com.
Post Falls (11-13), which played in the state final last year, earned a berth via a play-in game. The Trojans open against third-ranked Mountain View (18-5) at 7.
No. 1-ranked and defending state champ Borah (22-1) is favored.
“Basketball is like the stock market,” Winger said. “It’s four months. There are highs and there are lows. You just try to make sure your lows are limited and you build on the highs. Right now we’re on a pretty good high.”
LC is playing its best ball at the right time.
It’s the first time LC is heading to state with a legitimate chance to capture the state championship since 2001-02 when the Timberwolves finished second. That team ranks as Winger’s best.
This year’s team is easily his second-best team.
“That’s fair to say,” Winger said. “We’ve made a lot of trips to state over the years. A lot of those teams should have been there, but they were overachievers and small teams. This team has size and we’re pretty balanced with our scoring.”
Winger would love to bottle up the way LC has played the last three games and take it to state.
“We’ve dominated the last three games,” he said. “This is a very, very solid team offensively and defensively. We’re better than I thought we’d be.”
A big part of LC’s success has been its two senior starters, Riley Moreen and Drew Hocking.
The 6-foot-6 Moreen, a two-year starter and four-year letterman, is making his second trip to state. He sat on the bench as a freshman the last time LC qualified.
He’s averaging 10.6 points, five rebounds and two assists per game.
“He’s become a leader,” Winger said. “He’s transformed into a good player. He’s kicked it up a notch or two. The big thing, though, is he’s been a verbal leader. That’s been a huge part down the stretch.”
Moreen said the T-Wolves had great expectations going into the season.
“Getting to state was among the expectations but that’s not everything,” he said. “I want to win a state title. There’s no reason we can’t do that. When we’re really clicking I don’t see anybody able to beat us.”
Moreen admits the season has had some ups and downs.
“The last three games we’ve really realized we need to play and can’t be messing around,” Moreen said. “We’ve all finally realized what we needed to do. All of us are playing well. I wouldn’t trade any of our kids for anybody. This team is so awesome it makes it so enjoyable.”
Moreen said the plan is simple at state.
“We need to rebound, that’s the first thing,” he said. “And we need to play hard. When we play hard the offense comes easy and the defense comes easy. If we do that we’ll do well.”
Hocking, a 6-2 wing, didn’t play with LC during summer ball. So when he showed up at tryouts and made the team, Winger thought he could be a good addition coming off the bench.
That lasted one game. Hocking, who averages 5.1 points and two rebounds, has started since the second game. He’s become a threat from 3-point range in recent games.
“I just wanted to make the team after not playing in the summer,” Hocking said. “Everything else has been a bonus.”
Winger has been more than pleased with Hocking.
“He’s played not only outstanding defense but offensively at times he’s been off the charts,” Winger said.