PHS senior Ty May slams the ball home in the second during the team's 65-40 victory over Hidden Valley in the first round of the 4A playoffs. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

With a string of impressive wins over quality opponents this season, the Philomath High boys basketball team has drawn a lot of attention around the state. The Warriors finished No. 1 in the final Class 4A rankings despite finishing second in the Oregon West with two losses to Cascade.

The top-seeded Warriors don’t see themselves as the favorites to come home with the top trophy. No, it’s the Cougars that will have the biggest target on their backs.

“Yeah, we have the No. 1 seed but there’s no way that we’re the team to beat,” PHS Blake Ecker said after his team moved past Hidden Valley Saturday night in the first round, 65-40. “Cascade got us twice, so they’re the team that will have all the pressure on them and they’re the defending state champions. We’re hoping we get another matchup with them.”

The two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket and could meet in the championship game if they both get through their first two opponents. Philomath will face Crook County at 1:30 p.m. Thursday for its first test in the tournament at Forest Grove and with a win, would face either Baker or Henley in the semifinals.

The Cougars, meanwhile, will go up against Marist Catholic in the quarterfinals and if they move on, could see a rematch of last year’s 4A title game in the semifinals if Junction City beats Gladstone.

Senior Ty May, who had one of his top games of the season with 23 points, believes Philomath always needs to be on top of its game to hold off challengers looking for an upset. The Warriors have maintained a winning tradition in basketball for years.

But as the coach pointed out, Cascade has earned the right to be called the favorite in Forest Grove. 

“I think with this group, the two losses to Cascade are really motivating us,” May said. “It kind of took some of that pressure off, almost, because we’re not really the team to beat anymore. … The pressure’s still there and we’re still a target because Philomath basketball is a big name.”

Senior Cole Beardsley flies toward the hoop in the first quarter. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Cole Beardsley, one of four seniors who played in the PHS gym for the final time against Hidden Valley, said all eight teams will be in contention to nab the title.

“I don’t care about seeds,” Beardsley said. “I believe we are the best team but that doesn’t mean anything — we’ve got to prove it. We’re all here for one goal and that is to win a state championship.”

The Warriors needed to take care of business in the first round against Hidden Valley, however, before thinking about tournament trophies. Philomath stumbled at times against the Mustangs but came through big in the second half for a comfortable victory.

“We got a little lackadaisical thinking that we were going to roll over them and that wasn’t quite the case,” Ecker said. “We told them that ‘they’re going to come back and they’re going to fight hard — they’ve got nothing to lose so we’ve got to buckle up and go.’”

Philomath opened the game with a 3-pointer by May and just 90 seconds into the contest had a 7-0 lead. The Warriors ended the first quarter up 24-6 with all types of scoring going on — May and junior Jacob Peters were particularly troublesome for Hidden Valley to handle and Beardsley buried back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 22 seconds.

Junior Preston Kramer and senior Cole Beardsley apply defensive pressure. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The second quarter was a different story. Junior Kaden Muir scored in the opening seconds to put Philomath up by 20 points but Hidden Valley held its ground and battled back to pull within striking distance down by 10 at halftime.  

May and Beardsley both said the coach energized the team with his perspectives in the locker room at the break. In particular, the coach stressed to his players that they need to take care of the ball and avoid careless mistakes.

Still, coming out for the third, Hidden Valley took advantage of PHS turnovers, hit a couple of free throws and scored after an offensive board to cut the Warrior lead to just six points. But Philomath settled in and went on a 19-3 run over the final 6-1/2 minutes of the quarter and led 50-28 going into the fourth quarter.

“I don’t think we played our best but at times we also looked really good,” Ecker said. “Then again, we won by 25, but we’re still going, you know, there’s just so much more out there that we can get out.”

With a tuneup game against North Eugene canceled and going less than 100% against a group of PHS alumni in more of a fun atmosphere, the squad hadn’t seen a truly competitive contest on the floor since a close loss to Cascade on Feb. 20.

“It definitely took a lot to just get into the flow of the game,” May said. “I think we started out pretty good but in the second quarter, we let up on the gas and I think that had something to do with not playing for a while and not being used to keeping up that tempo for that long.”

PHS junior Jacob Peters comes up with a steal. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Beardsley said the team just needs to learn that a full effort is needed at all times.

“I look forward to practice and I think it’s been preparing us for sure,” he said. “But we definitely do need to keep going as hard as we can every day.”

May’s 23 points came on 11 field goals — including the game-opening trey — and Beardsley finished with 16 on five baskets and a couple of free throws. Beardsley scored 10 in the second half and finished with four 3-pointers in the game.

Peters had an effective night as well with his presence at the glass and in the lane. Peters scored 12 points on five field goals and two free throws. Big man Chad Russell, another one of those seniors making a last home appearance, scored eight in the second half.

Sophomore Joshua Iwamizu scored 12 and senior Daniel Iwamizu had 10 for Hidden Valley (11-14).

The 4A tournament runs Thursday through Saturday with all games at Forest Grove High School. The top four seeds are Philomath, Junction City, Cascade and Baker. The Tigers moved on with a 74-50 win over La Grande; Cascade eliminated The Dalles, 70-31, and Baker rolled over Madras, 90-46.

Crook County earned the quarterfinal matchup against the Warriors after defeating Stayton, 56-52. Gladstone knocked out another Oregon West school in the first round with a 54-43 upset at North Marion. Henley advanced with a 65-62 thriller over Astoria and Marist, the lowest seed still alive at No. 11, won on the road over Seaside, 56-44.

Senior Chad Russell finds an open path to the net in the second half. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.