By Lee Horton
Peninsula Daily News
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The Roughriders and the Buccaneers are both 6-4 in league, as is Olympic. North Kitsap is a half-game behind at 5-4.
Those four teams are likely battling for the Olympic League's last two spots in the district playoffs, as Bremerton (10-0) and Sequim (8-2) have opened up sizable leads at the top of the standings.
On this date last season, Port Angeles (8-6 overall) was 2-9 in league play and 3-12 overall, en route to a 3-17 season.
The Riders hadn't been mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet, but that was only a few days away.
Twelve months later, they're in the thick of the postseason race.
Why the turnaround?
“It's just more team camaraderie and stuff,” senior guard Hayden Gunderson said of this season's team compared to 2012-13.
“Last year, after the first couple of games, people got really selfish and they didn't really care about the team as much.
“This year, everybody just wants to win. They don't want a repeat of last year.”
“So, they're willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Part of what it takes is a lot of hard work.
“The kids have been playing year-round,” second-year head coach Brent Stephens said.
“The season never really stopped.”
Stephens said the players entered four basketball tournaments in the Seattle-Tacoma area over the summer.
There, they faced and talked to players from schools such as Woodrow Wilson, which is currently ranked second in Class 3A.
“They saw how good the really good teams are, and those kids are waking up at 8 in the morning,” Stephens said.
“That spoke for itself. A light went on in the [Port Angeles] kids' heads: This is what basketball players do.
“It was a matter of them understanding that if you want to be really good and achieve the goals you want to achieve, you have to do this work.”
Some players, such as leading scorers Hunter Hathaway and Derek Schumacher and defensive stopper Tristan Isett devoted last summer solely to basketball.
Point guard Brady Konopaski, meanwhile, spent a majority of his summer playing baseball for Wilder.
But that didn't keep him completely off the court. Konopaski often phoned or sent text messages to Stephens, asking him to open the gym.
Stephens also said he sometimes had to tell football players Austin Polly, Steven Lauderback and John Boesenberg to go home during football season when they were hanging around the gym too much.
Then there's Gunderson, who led the team in scoring last year (11.6 points per game).
He, too, planned to play hoops all summer, but broke his right wrist in the first summer tournament.
He still played basketball all summer.
“[Stephens] told me to come in; if I didn't, he'd yell at me,” Gunderson said with a laugh.
“I was over here working on my left hand, doing all these drills. He had tons of drills for me.
“Yeah, it was really annoying, coming in every day. But it was worth it.”
This season, Gunderson is third on the team, averaging 12.5 points per game. Hathaway leads the team at 14.1 ppg and Schumacher is second at 13.3 per game.
“There's a big difference. Last year, we had a couple of people who could score, but we didn't really get to see them, because we were taking some horrible shots,” Gunderson said of sharing the scoring load.
“But this year, we have a lot of guys that are willing to score, and they all know how to. And it helps a lot when we start . . . moving the ball and get open shots.”
According to Gunderson, playing together so much in the offseason has helped the players be as close on the court they are off it.
Stephens said that wasn't too difficult.
“It's a bunch of kids that like being around each other,” Stephens said.
“It wasn't a hard sell to get the kids to mesh real well; they've always gotten along. It wasn't about getting them to buy into a team concept, because they like each other.”
Stephens got his first head coaching job in 2000 at age 19, and has been coaching basketball since.
His resume includes stints as an assistant coach at the college level in California and Texas.
He said he regiments his players' schedules so they are similar to those of college basketball players.
“We want them to be well-rounded student-athletes,” he said.
“It's their job to be good basketball players and get good grades.”
Against the Buccaneers tonight (7 p.m. at Port Angeles High School), the Riders will be seeking revenge for a 60-52 loss in Kingston on Dec. 13.
A few weeks later, it remained a frustrating setback for a team with postseason aspirations.
“The Kingston loss should bug our kids a lot,” Stephens said in late December.
With only six games left on the Olympic League schedule, every game is crucial. But the games against the three teams clustered in third place take on added importance, because the team that wins stays with the pack, while the loser is knocked down a notch.
Port Angeles split the season series with Olympic, and is 1-0 against North Kitsap, which the Riders face on the road next Tuesday, Jan. 28.
Sports Editor Lee Horton can be reached at 360-417-3525 or at email@example.com.