Grays Harbor College men’s basketball program has had a resurgence in the 2019-20 season.
In his second season at the helm of the Chokers, head coach Matt Vargas has guided Grays Harbor to its first winning season and first Northwest Athletic Conference Championship Tournament berth since the 2007-08 season.
Their reward, a date with the powerhouse Everett Trojans in a first-round game at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Clackamas Community College.
The game was originally scheduled to take place last Saturday at Everett College, but after an Everett student was determined to have contracted the coronavirus, NWAC officials postponed all tournament games and rescheduled both the men’s and women’s tournaments to resume this week in Oregon.
According to the Chokers (16-13), who haven’t played a competitive basketball game in two weeks, the extra time off was not a hindrance, but a benefit.
“It’s kind of a blessing in disguise as it gave us more time to get ready,” Grays Harbor sophomore and All-NWAC West Second Team player Zach Marrotte said. “It gave us more time to get prepared for everything.”
Grays Harbor’s Zyare Ruffin added that the Chokers have been keeping in good shape during the long layoff.
“Everyone is pretty healthy and we’re all in good shape,” he said.
In Everett (25-4), the Chokers will face a team with an impressive resume. The second-ranked Trojans won the NWAC North Region with a 12-2 league record and have won 12 of their past 13 games, including a current seven-game winning streak.
Everett features a balanced offense that is the best in the NWAC at sharing the basketball. Six Everett players average at least 9.9 points per game this season and the Trojans are second in the NWAC with 20.9 assists per game.
Everett also boasts arguably the best defense in the NWAC. The Trojans allow the second fewest points per game in the NWAC at 68.3 and are the best rebounding team in the conference, averaging 49 rebounds per game. Their average of four blocked shots per game is also tops in the conference.
If that isn’t daunting enough, Everett is also tops in the NWAC in opponent field goal and 3-point shooting percentages, holding teams to 36.4% and 28.6%, respectively.
What does all this inside basketball information mean? If you manage to get up a shot against Everett, it’s usually a contested one and the only one you are going to get.
But the Chokers see a crack in the armor, and believe they have a game plan that can exploit it.
“Their numbers are going to favor keeping shooting percentages down because they rebound the ball so well,” Vargas said. “When I watched them play Shoreline, (Shoreline) had a lot of success against them because they played with tempo.”
Grays Harbor plans to turn the game into a track meet.
“That worked well against them,” Vargas said. “Get out and get high-percentage shots in transition by getting out ahead and not letting them dig in with their size. Our best offense is going to be our defense.”
Grays Harbor sophomore Michael Sampson, who was also named to the All-NWAC Second Team, said he thinks the Chokers have the personnel to do just that.
“We’re pretty quick and with the guards we have I feel like we can get after it,” he said. “(The Trojans) are catch-and-shoot guys and I feel if we can get after it and contest, then have all five guys crash the boards and get out on the break, we’ll be successful.”
Though some NWAC prognosticators are picking the Chokers to lose in a blowout, Grays Harbor doesn’t see itself as an underdog.
“Everybody is 0-0 right now,” Marrotte said. “It’s down to whoever plays better. We’re all tournament-caliber teams.”
“We certainly respect them and know they’re very good,” Vargas said. “We have to play a damn near perfect game to beat them, but that’s not out of our wheelhouse at all.”
The team that has believed they “can play with anybody” the entire season long, a theme that has led them to the program’s most successful campaign in over a decade, believes it can play with the conference’s best.
“We want to go in there and come out with a win and shock the world,” Sampson said. “We’ve already done that by making the tournament. … We don’t feel like we’re underdogs at all.”
“It’s a one-game season and we need to show up and play a really good game,”Vargas said. “I like my kids. They’ve got some dog in ‘em and we’re going to show up and play.”