Ephrata boys return size and 3-point shooters for another run in the CWAC

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Rodney Harwood/Columbia Basin Herald Joshua Benthem (right) is a key returner for Ephrata this season.

EPHRATA — They can run, they can shoot the 3-ball and their big on the blocks. The Ephrata boys basketball team goes into the 2017-18 season with a veteran group and are ready to take the next step.

As it was last year, all roads to the Central Washington Athletic Conference title go through Selah, but Tigers coach Brandon Evenson likes his chances.

“Our starting five got a lot of experience last year, four of those guys started quite a bit,” said Evenson, who is headed into his 14th season. “Our bench is young, but we like what we’re seeing from them so far.”

The Tigers are coming off a fourth-place finish in the CWAC a year ago and return senior Jakob Oxos (6-2, sr., G) on the wing. Oxos, who along with Cameron Clark, was one of the door runners on Ephrata’s high-flying 3-point machine last year. Clark is gone, but Oxos is expected to pick right where he left off on the perimeter game.

“If you look at our stats from last year, we averaged four less 3s made than our opponents shot,” Evenson said. “Our style is to run the ball and push it up the floor, but we do like to shoot it from the perimeter.”

The Tigers average 28 3-point attempts per game with a conversion rate of 31.1 percent. They like the 3-ball and made 22 from downtown against Selah last season.

They also return Caden Blankenship (5-11, sr., G), Joshua Benthem (6-3, jr., F),Hunter James (6-4, jr., F) and Trenton Kleyn (5-11, jr. G).

“We have some size with Oxos at 6-2 on the wing. James and Josh are 6-4 inside,” Evenson said. “We have three 6-2 guys that will come off the bench, so I like our inside game, too. I think Josh and Hunter are two of the best bigs in the league. We’re going to try and establish them inside and do a little more inside-out this year.”

Defensively, the Tigers depth with varsity experience doesn’t go much deeper than the starting five, so there is a little mystery going into the season-opener Wednesday night against Aussie Traveling team. They spend so much energy on the offensive side that playing pressure defense might not be a luxury they can afford until they figure out the bench rotation, Evenson said.

“Sometimes we use the defense to catch our breath and in our league everybody goes back to that, so we don’t really have to speed it up on defense,” he said. “Our size will really help us with rebounding, and our guards rebound really well. Rebounding is about heart and you can coach that. It’s all about blocking out and making sure we get the ball first.”

The CWAC is a quality league and it takes a lot of work to get out. Selah (21-4) won the league and played for the 2A state championship last season. Wapato (16-6) and Toppenish (15-9) are certainly contenders again this season. On the upside, Ephrata handed Selah one of its two CWAC losses a year ago.

“In this league, it’s going to be a battle every night,” Evenson said. “Selah returns most of their guys. Our goal right now is to host a district game, which means finishing in the top four. Hopefully we can handle the district tournament a little better.

“We split with everybody but Prosser last year. If you can win a few games on the road and take care of business at home, that’s a big deal. The football team having a good year is always a plus and we’ll feed off of that as much as we can.”

Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at rharwood@columbiabasinherald.com

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