Change defines Knights early on

<p>Irrigon's Francisco Nunez tries to drive past Ione's Zac Orem last season in Ione. Nunez will be one of Irrigon's main weapons as hey try to get out of the cellar of the Blue Mountain Conference.</p>

For the Irrigon Knights to crawl out of the Blue Mountain Conference cellar this season, consistency will have to be — well, consistent.

“Our goal is the playoffs,” Irrigon head coach Jake McElligott said. “The league is always tough, but there are a lot of teams that lost quite a bit.”

While the Knights return the core of their starting lineup from last season, McElligott said there’s going to be an overhaul in the way the program operates, and it all starts with an attitude adjustment.

“The way things have been working in the past few years haven’t been productive,” McElligott said. “We need to change the culture of the program.”

To do that, McElligott said all the players have to do is take a look at how empty the rafters and walls of the Irrigon gymnasium are. No banners, no bracket boards — just blank space.

The Knights have the returning players to make a turn-around year possible. With starting point guard Francisco Nunez (5-foot-10 junior), last year’s leading scorer, back running the show, it will force defenses to account for him wherever he goes.

Big-man Jose Romero (6-4, junior) will be a key to Irrigon’s inside game, along with senior Sean Barron (6-3).

Although a little undersized at 6-0, sophomore guard/forward Ernesto Aguilera is expected to build upon last season and become one of Irrigon’s best players. He was the team’s second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder last season and McElligott is looking for him to be one of his main weapons this season.

“He’s strong and physical,” McElligott said. “He’s a slasher and driver and can get to the basket.”

A talented freshman class, one that McElligott said as a whole logged many hours on the court in the AAU summer circuit, should help support the cast of veteran players.

As for a conference outlook, McElligott is looking at three teams that could potentially end up fighting for the No. 1 seed to the state tournament.

“Weston-McEwen has to be one of the favorites,” he said. “Enterprise will be toward the top and Heppner will compete. We’ll just have to see how it shakes out.”

Irrigon opens the year at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Echo Hoops Invitational against host Echo.

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