The attitude of the Hermiston boys’ basketball team, head coach Larry Usher hopes, can be boiled down to one word: tough.

While the team will have tons of athleticism and talented players on the offensive side of the ball, the Dawgs will put tallies in the win column with gritty play and a blue-collar mindset.

“Our goal is to always try to out-work teams,” Usher said. “There are a lot of teams that have size and athleticism, and they don’t win with just that.”

Last season, Hermiston was the third-worst defensive team in the old Intermountain Conference, giving up 61.5 points per game. Out of the teams in the present-day Columbia River Conference, only Hood River Valley was worse. The Bulldogs played to a 5-9 league record and 11-13 overall in 2009-10.

In order to correct that this year, Usher said his team will have to make some adjustments until he feels they can stay with teams and grind out a game’s worth of stout man-to-man defense.

“It takes physically tough kids to sit back and play half-court man-to-man defense for 32 minutes,” Usher said. “I think the scouting report on the kids we have is that they are not very tough defensively, and we’ve talked about that.”

But that was then, and this season’s Bulldogs are committed to  cleaning it up on defense while applying the same frantic offensive pace that made them score 65 points per game, leading teams that form the CRC now.

Another plus Usher pointed out is the experience level of the team. Minus the graduated Austin Boedigheimer and Rylie Smith, the Bulldogs return everyone from last year’s team, including 6-foot-7 forward Trevor Phillips.

He is expected to be a focal point of the offense this year along with his improvement defensively.

“We talked with him a lot about getting pushed around and off-balance in the interior,” Usher said. “But he’s put on some weight and beefed up. It helps his athleticism, but it will help his toughness as well.”

Down low with Phillips is another senior, 6-foot-6 Ryan Ross. Between him and Phillips, most of the production on the low-block will fall on their shoulders.

Sharp-shooting Kurt Simmons and Austin Boedigheimer will return to the wing positions this season, along with the ultra-athletic junior Alex Ortiz. Senior Joey Burns will return to his point guard spot.

Usher said that more pressure will fall on the coaching staff this year than year’s past due to the fact they play each CRC team four times, rather than twice in years past

“I told my coaching staff last spring we needed to start preparing for it,” Usher said. “We feel like in order to beat a team a second time, you have to out-coach them. To beat them three or four times, you have to coach real well and make a lot of adjustments.”

With the preseason schedule Hermiston has lined up, they will find out where they are at, and where they need to be, rather quickly.

“We’ve got a murderer’s row,” Usher said. Hermiston will travel to Lewiston, Idaho for a tournament this weekend, then spend the rest of the nonleague playing against Columbia Basin Big Nine schools like Kamiakin, Moses Lake, Chiawana and Southridge. “We’re talking about some of the best 3A and 4A Washington teams, and playing them at their place is going to be real tough for us.”

The season won’t be a success if Hermiston doesn’t put the work in during practice and changes the opinion that they are soft. Part of that, Usher said, is psychological.

“Our kids, as individuals, need to make decisions to get better.” he said. “We’ve got a mature group of kids with plenty of varsity experience, and hopefully that results in kids making good decisions.”

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