Reese Jones sat in a car parked outside PJ Taggares Gym with the heater blowing full blast last winter, waiting for wrestling practice to start.
“I can remember being a little kid watching the home duals, knowing all the names of the guys and inspiring to be like them. Maybe one day some kid will come to watch me and say, ‘I wish I could be like Reese Jones,’” said Jones, who won a 2A state championship at 170 pounds last year. “It means something to wrestle here.”
This farming town in the middle of the Columbia Basin is known for raising potatoes and growing champions — wrestling champions. Othello is a wrestling town, always has been, always will be.
But there’s a group of guys that are trying to expand that circle and spark the community’s interest in basketball. They are taking that same hard-work, blue-collar, determination they have in the room to heart on the basketball court.
It’s going to take some time, but the Othello boys basketball team is working hard to change the culture or at least establish their place in the sun, one step at a time. They’ve already won more games than they won all last season. They beat East Valley. They won in Ephrata for the first time since 2008-09. They took Prosser to triple overtime, before the Mustangs put together a 6-0 run to pull away.
It’s still Selah and Ellensburg atop the Central Washington Athletic Conference standings, but the Huskies are coming hard and it’s not going unnoticed. At the intermission of the Prosser game, the first grade Othello Ballers youth basketball team entertained the capacity crowd, bombing up and down the floor like a little Pack in Progress. They had some hops and showed a little game as they played full-court, 3-on-3.
Maybe one day, one of these little guys will step onto the floor wearing red and black and represent Othello.
“There’s just not much interest here when it comes to basketball. Hopefully that’s starting to change. Anytime a team is winning, that generates a little excitement in the community and it gets the kids excited,” said Ballers coach Joshua Tovar. “(The Huskies) went into triple overtime the other night. They won at Ephrata and they beat East Valley too, which hasn’t happened in a long time.
“We’re starting to see excitement with the younger guys. I started my seventh grade team when they were in fourth grade. Now we have a first grade team that's won three-four tournament. So hopefully that interest catches on.”
Generating excitement at the youth level is the gateway to a new trend. The high school ushered in the Roman Pruneda era with four wins so far. Pruneda played his first three high school seasons at Othello before transferring to East Valley (Yakima). He replaced George Juarez as the new head coach this season.
“There hasn’t been the tradition or a foundation with basketball,” he said. “I love to win, but it’s really important to work hard and get things in place to move forward.
“I’m running it like a college program and we’re practicing for two-and-a-half, three hours a day, then going to the weight room for another hour. It’s a change for them, but I want to break them down and start building them up. It’s about changing the culture and the tradition with the basketball program here in Othello.”
Senior Kyler Villarreal is all in. The 6-foot-4 point guard had 41 points in the thriller with Prosser and a game-high 30 points in the Huskies’ 77-75 overtime victory over Ephrata, which was the first win in The Jungle since 2008-09.
“I don’t think we’re changing the culture of Othello basketball, I know we are,” Villarreal said. “We have a new coach and he’s changing us. We have something we haven’t had for a really long time, desire.
“I was talking to a guy that just graduated and he told me that basketball was off-season for him. It was just the sport that took up the time between football and baseball. But we all love the game and we’re working hard to make a difference.”
Both Villarreal and Trevor Hilmes play football. Both are dedicated to turning the basketball team around from a program that won just two games last season.
“We believe in ourselves,” said Hilmes. “We’re not the most skilled players or the best shooters in the league, but we’re making a difference through just plain hard work. We work our butts off chasing loose balls and playing defense.
“We understand our roles. We have our shooters. We have our rebounders, our hustle-players and everybody is doing what they can to contribute to this team.”
Jonathan Garza is another senior that’s throwing his heart and soul into basketball this season.
“That’s our goal this year, make people pay attention to basketball,” said Garza, who buried eight 3-point goals in the first half en route to 28 points against Ephrata. “We’re playing harder. We’re playing smarter. We definitely have way more confidence this year.
“First you gotta believe. We have to believe in ourselves before we can make a difference and that’s what’s happening here.”
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at email@example.com