BULLDOGS ARE SECOND TO NONE

Hermiston senior Juan Rodriguez pumps his fist after heading to the bench late in the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs' Intermountain Conference title-clinching win Wednesday night over Hood River Valley.

By Ben Reynolds

Herald sports editor

HERMISTON — The second half could not go by fast enough.

Players got enthralled by taking peeks at the clock, and at times losing concentration on the game, wishing they could fast forward time.

Like every other game, the clock eventually reached zero, but this wasn't just an ordinary finish for the Hermiston High School boys basketball team.

Wednesday night ended a dream season for a team that barely looked like a playoff contender, let alone a league champion two months ago.

The Bulldogs cut down the nets at Hermiston High School after an ugly 45-29 win over Hood River Valley to clinch at least a share of the Intermountain Conference title for the first time since the 1982-83 season.

Wednesday's victory also marked the first time in history that a Hermiston (20-4, 14-2 IMC) team has posted a 20-win regular season.

"Doing what we just did was completely unrealistic," said Hermiston third-year coach Larry Usher. "It's unrealistic. Three months ago this was not a realistic goal for us."

But after 16 straight victories, including 14 straight conference wins, the Bulldogs earned the conference No. 1 seed for the state playoffs that begin next Wednesday.

"You can't set your expectations too much," said Paul Carollo, the conference's leading scorer at 20 points per game. "We just wanted to do well this year."

Carollo was the lone returning starter from last year's team that went 11-3 to finish second in the conference. A lot of questions surrounded Hermiston this year, and many wondered if they could even get back to the playoffs.

Around Carollo, his teammates jelled and started to get comfortable with their roles and put together a winning streak that dates back to the end of December.

Most attribute that success to hard work and preparation.

"After all the hard work we put in, I couldn't expect anything less from this team because they worked as hard as they could," said senior Juan Rodriguez.

The long title drought did not produce any jubilant celebration on the court, but rather some smiles and congratulatory handshakes for about 30 minutes after the game was over.

Usher said he thought the subdued celebration had a lot to do with the anticlimactic finish, but also his players not realizing the significance of their accomplishment and place in the Hermiston High history books.

"I think it's difficult for these kids to understand that I was 11-years-old the last time Hermiston won a championship," he said. "Hopefully that helps the kids understand what they have accomplished."

Hermiston, which now has just four conference titles to its credit and only one outright title in 1960 in the school's history, played less than its best against a scrappy Hood River (8-14, 5-10) team.

With a lot of the distractions and the anticipation, Hermiston uncharacteristically turned the ball over and looked out of sync at times.

But through that, the Bulldogs left little to be decided after a 12-2 first-quarter run.

Hermiston extended its lead in the second quarter and led by as many as 23 points in the second half. The Bulldogs were just trying to make it through the final eight minutes, but Dennis Methvin brought a little excitement to the game in the closing minutes.

The Hood River senior scored 14 points of his game-high 16 points in the fourth quarter including four 3-pointers from well-beyond the 3-point arc. His third of the quarter with 3:43 left in the game cut the gap to 10 at 36-26.

But after a Rodriguez free throw and a Ryan Bell three, Hermiston put the game out of reach, and the scoreboard gazing began to increase.

"All game man, I wish that clock would have gone faster," Rodriguez said.

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