The bitter taste in the mouths of the Camas High School boys basketball players has been sweetened by the beginning of a new season.
After the Papermakers beat league rival Union last January, they plateaued and saw their season come to an abrupt end in the first round of the district playoffs on a circus 3-pointer off the backboard by Hudson’s Bay. Those spoiling Eagles also nipped Union in the district finale, but the Titans rebounded at bi-districts and went on to win the state championship.
Union is now out of the 3A Greater St. Helens League, and Kelso and Mountain View are in. Columbia River, Fort Vancouver and Prairie remain a thorn in Camas’ side. And before league starts on Dec. 14, the Papermakers play Skyview, Evergreen, Union and Centennial.
“We’ve been right there in the mix the last few years, and that means we’ve got a target on our backs,” said Camas head coach Scott Preuninger. “A lot of coaches are picking us to be the team to beat. We’re the hunted, and we know we’re going to get every team’s best shot night in and night out. Hopefully, that makes us better.”
It all starts when the Papermakers face the Storm Wednesday at Skyview High School. Tip off is at 7 p.m.
“Our goal right now is to beat Skyview in that first game. One game at a time, we can’t afford to look too far ahead,” Preuninger said. “Getting out of districts is the first thing. After that, anything can happen. We’re a different team, even if we have a lot of returning players.”
Some new and familiar faces hope to sweeten Camas’ chances. Leading the way are returning varsity players Marc Eppinger, Kyle Friend, Jacob Kaler, Damon Kosaki, Michael Neff and Addison Owen. Bryan Butler is back at the point after a year of ineligibility. Kurt Yinger joins the varsity ranks after two successful seasons in baseball. Kevin Basilio and Richard Schultz transfer into the program as seniors.
“The addition of Bryan and Kevin make us quicker, better defenders, better ball-handlers and better shooters,” Preuninger said. “Those two change the game on both ends, and make us a totally different team.”
Preuninger is proud of the examples set by all-league players Eppinger, Kaler and Owen. Kaler also runs cross country, Kosaki and Owen reached the state quarterfinals in football, and Yinger pitched in the state semifinal game for the Papermakers.
“Kurt Yinger has a great work ethic and attitude coming from a baseball team that got second at state. Football had their run, and both Addison and Damon were a big part of it,” Preuninger said. “Hopefully, our basketball team can feed off of the success of baseball and football. Having guys around who know how to win rubs off on everybody.”
The seniors cannot believe they are about to begin their last year of high school basketball. Many of them have been playing together since middle school. They all know it’s now or never.
“We definitely want to make a run at state this year,” Kaler said. “I know I’ve been saying that since sophomore year. We really got to make it happen. We’re tired of talking about it every year. Let’s go out and prove it, and take care of business.”
The Papermakers still have nightmares about that game-winning basket by Hudson’s Bay that ended their season.
“It just showed us we got to work harder every time we step on the court,” Eppinger said. “We don’t want what happened last year to happen to us this year, and that just motivates us to work harder.
“We want to make history,” he added. “State hasn’t been done by a Camas boys basketball team since 1962. I look at that banner every day, and I know we have the ability to change that.”
One of the happiest Papermakers to be back in the mix is Butler.
“It was a hard for me to be away last year, but I needed to take time off to get my life back together,” he said. “It feels great to be back with these guys, who are like my second family. The gym is my second home. I feel like a million bucks.”
When Preuninger became head coach at Camas, these seniors were in fifth grade. Since then, it has been nothing but commitment to basketball for seven years leading up to this one. Although a lot is riding on the next few months, Preuninger reminds the boys to have a good time.
“I really want our seniors to have fun this year. I want them to enjoy being around each other every day,” Preuninger said. “If we play together and we play hard, all of the other things will take care of themselves. These guys want to put a stamp on the program that says ‘this is what happens when you put all of your hard work and effort into the team. This is what you work for.'”